On Saturday night Bethan and I went to see Miss Atomic Bomb at the St James Theatre in Victoria. It's had 'mixed' reviews, we hear, but we both enjoyed it, to different degrees.
We booked tickets earlier in the week - a late-breaking opportunity for an evening out, a scouring of the Time Out website (with its still-wretched search/display interface) for possibilities, and success with our second preference (The Painkiller with Kenneth Branagh and Rob Brydon being sold out, doubtless months ago), getting the last two seats (at the cheaper price, possibly, but I think at all, if I remember rightly), in the middle of the back row, next to an empty space which I guessed correctly would be a technical desk.
We bought the tickets on Monday evening, even as the press night performance was going on. Even if we'd read the bad reviews - and I still haven't read them, just picked up that they are mixed at best - we'd still have gone for it. It sounded interesting, and the couple of blog reviews I saw in google results on the night, based on previews, looked okay.
The big name was Catherine Tate, who we thought would be reliably good. Looking at the programme now, the only other cast member I think we'd seen before was Simon Lipkin, in As You Like It at the Southwark Playhouse some time ago. They each played, broadly speaking, the comedy leads, the companions (friend/brother) of the romantic leads, and they were both good at that, Simon Lipkin in particular.
I thought the songs were very good, and the singing, and the dancing, and the acting. The songs were proper songs, not the linear unmemorable songs so bafflingly prevalent in modern stage musicals, nor overly histrionic/melodramatic/showy; this more traditional song style may have been to tie in with the 1950s theatrical setting, which also helped up the dancing quotient. It also had less solo singing than there often is and more harmonies, from duets upwards, and I'm very much in favour of that too. Although one of the high points for me was Radioactive Love, which was a solo song, but one done as a topical love song of the time, delivered perfectly both musically and vocally, and humorously; it was appropriately understated, so much so that I'm not sure it would have got applause, like the more upfront ones, if I hadn't started clapping at the appropriate moment and people joined in after a couple of seconds (I didn't intend to be the leader, but I was surprised nobody else had started).
I'd be surprised if the bad reviews were for the music, though I guess they might be if people want the modern traditional style. What might the bad reviews have been for? Well...
People don't go to musicals for the plot, but I thought the plot was annoyingly terrible. (Bethan didn't, to be fair, sticking firmly to the first half of that sentence.) I think partly they were just trying to fit far too many plot threads in, covering so many aspects relating to the real-life situation of Las Vegas and atomic testing in the early 1950s, and events moved preposterously fast. Just one detail, but I thought the threat of death at the hand of mobsters for the hotel manager was far too weighty and real compared to the other 'threats' to our heroes which were handled much more typically lightly.
The script wasn't great, though that would have been less of an issue if it had been funnier. The two comedy leads were good, but you sometimes got the sense (especially with Catherine Tate) that they were creating the laughs out of business and their personal riffs on the delivery of the lines on the page.
To a non-American, the non-specific American accents were fine in general, with the huge exception of Catherine Tate, whose accent veered all over the place but spent most time in Australia. If someone can't do an accent, you can still give them the job, but just accommodate it with a simple rewrite; not everyone in a play set in America has to be American, and Catherine Tate's character could really have been an immigrant from anywhere they wanted; instead it became this awful awkwardness for the audience members (and surely for everyone on stage, including Ms Tate, who must have known as well as we did that it wasn't working).
I thought that for the show to endure, or be revived, the plot and text would have to be overhauled, but the music and songs were there; indeed, they deserved a better 'book' in order to continue to be heard.
Okay, let's Google those reviews and see what comes up.
Londonist ('It’s not often theatre reviews are bad enough to make BBC lunchtime headlines, but the writers of Miss Atomic Bomb should be donning their tin hats. When London’s most enthusiastic musical theatre critic, The Stage’s Mark Shenton, who just chaired the BEAM event to encourage new musical writing is out of his seat like a rocket to get a one star review online before midnight, something must be wrong. Thing is, it didn’t feel like a crapfest on the night.' ... 'too many nods to too many other shows, musical styles and plot elements'. The intense bank man, as I suspected, was 'in the style of' something else, for over-the-top humorous effect - apparently Inspector Javert from Les Mis; I thought this worked fine, even if you didn't know what the exact allusion was; but it was really an unnecessary plot line, only there really to give the female lead a reason to need to enter the competition for the prize money, and the songs it contributed wouldn't really have been missed. This whole review similar to my own thoughts in terms of what was good and bad about it).
This is the BBC story referred to (and linked to) in the Londonist item above (headline 'Catherine Tate musical Miss Atomic Bomb "fails to detonate"'. Interesting that while having a big star name is good to draw the crowds - and I'm sure that it did get tickets booked by people who wouldn't otherwise have gone to a new musical, it becomes 'Catherine Tate musical', perhaps especially if it's in trouble. Also quite odd I think that she is described as 'Former Doctor Who star Tate', as if that were the most significant thing she'd ever done).
Guardian. The Stage (including a substantial set of the PR photos). Variety (another 'Doctor Who' credit). Standard. What's On Stage (full review and round-up). Independent. Daily Mail. Telegraph. Radio Times. Gay Times (the most outrightly favourable one of the lot). Metro. Express. Time Out. (No blogs on the first two pages; the couple of early ones I saw of course pushed aside by the big hitters.)
A lot of the main reviews seem to be one or two stars (and some of them didn't like the music). Bethan asked me how many stars I'd have given it. I said three out of five; it would be 4-4.5 for the good points mentioned above, but dragged down by the bad points. I wouldn't warn anyone off going to see it, especially if they were a fan of musicals in general (and not just the big West End ones).