Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate Village
#Tweetingit – review in 140 characters: 5* Unmissable WW2 – Blitz spirit (cross dressing draft dodging drummers) + all girl band = sisters doing for themselves.
Perched atop Highgate Village, the Gatehouse presents a challenging course of undulating hills en route from the tube. However, it was well worth the effort. The Gatehouse is a beautifully appointed Tudor style public house and provides the ideal setting for an intimate performance. Upstairs, an enthusiastic audience packed into every available seat, making the most of the venue’s competitive ticket pricing.
The story alights in 1943, a tumultuous year as the war finally turned in the Allies favour. The 8th Army had swept through North Africa and landed in Italy, the Dambusters heroic raid had fatally wounded Germany’s engine room and Ivy Benson’s all girl band became the BBC’s resident band. Ivy Benson ultimately provides the inspiration for the story of a female dance band keeping peoples’ spirits up while the men were away fighting. The production, always looked upon as a play with songs, and not a musical, divides into 3 neat acts. The girls led by saxophonist Betty are frantically searching for new band members. They are confronted with Lilly, a banjo playing nun; Elizabeth, child prodigy clarinettist and Miranda, a spoilt army driver, who confuses tenor sax with the trumpet. But she soon realises it’s the sax she can play, much to the relief of resident trumpeter Vera. Double bassist Grace and pianist May provide the band’s heartbeat and conscience. Just to complete the mix, we have Pat, boy drummer who sees the band as a way of avoiding joining the forces. It all makes for a glorious aggregation as the motley crew rehearse for their first appearance on the BBC.
The characters are infectious and lovable as they slowly mould into a slick unit. The transformation of Lilly, Elizabeth and Miranda into a close harmony vocal group is striking and gives the band an added dimension. Acts 1 and 2 are merely scene setting and I couldn’t help looking forward to Act 3 when the real action began. This is when the girls get frocked up and ready to kick ass. And do they kick it! All the legendary swing favourites are featured including ‘moonlight serenade’, ‘it ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it’ and ‘tuxedo junction’. The aforementioned trio also give it large, affecting a great reading of the Andrew Sisters, legendary vocal harmony group of the 40’s. Whilst newsreel footage of the era pins down the historical sub text, this production has a timeless quality and doesn’t just rely on nostalgia to score points. This isn’t necessarily a show for the over 80’s strolling down memory lane. No, this is a party that all ages can enjoy and if you learn something about history that’s a bonus.
The cast were outstanding in their musicianship and vocal range. Louisa Beadel as Betty and Lauren Storer as Miranda played some mean sax. Emma Jane Morton as Elizabeth sounded sweet on clarinet. Eloise Kay as May and Giovanna Ryan as Grace harmonised beautifully from behind their piano and double bass. The petite Ashley Sterling as Vera got real power from the trumpet, while Josh Haberfield as Pat performed solidly on the drums. However, the most memorable performance came from Katie Arnstein as Lily, who made the most of a swinging nun transforming into a swinging vocalist.
I was amazed by the age range in the audience, there were kids as young as 10 present and they got as much from it as the over 80’s. However, the venue as good as it is, seems too cramped for a production of this type and would benefit hugely from a larger stage. This show is the epitome of a great night out, a heart warming tribute to the indomitable spirit of those who lived through the war years, and a fantastic foot stomping musical revue of 40’s swing.…don’t miss it!
Author: Alan Plater
Director: John Plews
Musical Director: Angharad Sanders
Producer: Katy Plews for Ovation
Box Office: 020 8340 3488
Booking link: https://kiosk.iristickets.co.uk/k?uatg&9403tickets
Booking until: 29 June 2014