Prior to entering the theatre I climbed the steps of the London Underground Station, passing people wearing masks, cautious of anyone sneezing out of fear of catching the coronavirus. I then walked the cold dark streets of London, passing pubs of locals cheering without a care in the world, at least compared to those emptying the supermarkets of soap and toilet rolls earlier today. Now I sit here in my seat, at the very pleasant Union Theatre, looking at a set of war-time London knowing just what I’m wanting from tonight’s production, and I am not disappointed. Blitz! is full of hope and the spirit to stay calm and carry on: just what we need to hear right now.
Director Phil Wilmott has staged this uplifting piece with a cast full of talent, with the ensemble sections especially bringing to life this forgotten musical. Blitz! is set in the East End of London in the 1940s, at a time when Hitler’s bombs provided a different threat to our streets than what today’s fears bring. The show centres on the character of Mrs Blitztein as she reminds us of our loyalty to family, the importance of loving your neighbours, and to fight not just the battles of war but those of everyday life with hope.
Mrs Blitztein, played by Jessica Martin, is a strong independent woman, who keeps the locals in check, and who isn’t afraid to get stuck in. Mrs Blitztein reminds me of every woman I have ever spoken with about the war; she has a real strength of character, whilst still warming the heart. Martin could not be more perfectly cast, as she performs this highly demanding role with, what she makes seem like, ease.
What really makes Blitz! work for me is the use of space, whilst it might be small, the stage is transformed throughout the piece to an underground station, a pub, a bomb-site and more. We are taken from one scene into another with extremely smooth transitions and, with choreography by Daniel Maguire, we are (pun intended) blown away by the tightness of each performer’s movements. In the group numbers it can be overwhelming at times, with so many voices over a live band in such a small space, and the claustrophobic intensity of the stage, in the group numbers, at times fills me with nerves, watching for a clash that never comes. The talent here is confirmed as their harmonies are perfection. Strengthened by the characterisation that every actor has, I could watch this musical over and over, focusing on a different actor each time, with everyone having their own journey that is wonderfully developed.
By the end of Blitz! I am warmed by the story of coming together as a society and having hope and faith in each other. I wonder, if we do end up experiencing something as life changing as the Blitz!, would we be able to work together as a community to lift each other up out of the ashes? Nothing answers that question better than the moment the audience taps, and eventually sings along as one.
Blitz! certainly won’t take you to real emotional depths but it will give you light, laughter and joy – a piece we need at a time when everything in the world once again seems uncertain and unsafe. A reminder that we can’t always have control over what is happening to our world, but we can still come together and if we are lucky, someone might just ‘bake a cake’.
Blitz! ran at the Union Theatre, London until 7 March 2020. Peace in Our Time, another one of Noel Coward’s plays based on Britain and the war (had Hitler won) follows Blitz! (11 March to 4 April) as the final part of Willmott’s Essential Classics season. More information is available at the Union Theatre website.