Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene 1
I feel like I’ve missed a lot of great things at the St James Theatre recently, and indeed lots of great theatre starring Catherine Tate, so buying tickets for Miss Atomic Bomb was an obvious one. It’s also refreshing to hear of a new musical that isn’t based on an existing film, book, or music; which has a completely original plot. And original this certainly is! It’s just a shame that the five years which have apparently gone into developing the production aren’t particularly evident from the overall scrappiness of the narrative, as hard as the performers work to cover this up.
To quickly summarise the plot for you – or at least attempt to (!) – the whole thing takes place around Las Vegas, where in the deserts of Nevada, farm-girl Candy Johnston (Florence Andrews) and her fashion designer friend Myra (Catherine Tate) watch the atom-bombs go off like they’re a “second sunset”.
Through a series of extremely random coincidences involving an escaped soldier, a pair of ruthless gangsters, an officious bank employee, and a lot of dead sheep, Candy ends up deciding to enter the brand new Las Vegas ‘Miss Atomic Bomb’ beauty pageant. As I said, it’s complicated.
The thing is, there are quite a few funny moments in here; it’s not like it isn’t an enjoyable evening out. ‘All My Sheep Are Gone’ is utterly ridiculous, the drag queen entrant Carol (Charles Brunton) to the beauty pageant is fab, and I really appreciated the hyperbolic Les Mis-Javert tribute by Daniel Boys at the end – but it was just all so haphazardly put together that it was hard to focus a lot of the time.
It felt like each idea with potential had been developed by a different person or team and then they’d had a quick meeting and kind of smushed it all together.
This means there are several amusing jokes either buried under tons of dancing Las Vegas girls, crazy scientists or army generals, or drawn out for rather too long – like Simon Lipkin and Tate’s duet about sugar daddies and beards (I can’t find the titles of the songs anywhere, and I was too cheap to buy a programme, sorry!).
To be more succinct, the jokes are either dwelt on too much, or not dwelt on enough. The timing of the script seems off, a fault saved only by the excellent comic timing of some of the cast, particularly Lipkin and Tate.
The singing was also of an extremely high quality. In the lead male role of Joey, Dean John-Wilson produced some absolutely beautiful moments, particularly those in his higher range. I found myself thinking about downloading the soundtrack simply because of the vocals to be honest. It was just a shame we didn’t really get a proper exploration of his character; and that, in the twenty-first century, we’re still lumped with the whole ‘boy-meets-girl, they fall in love almost at first sight (or at least within the space of a song), and change everything bad about themselves in order to get together’ trope. To be fair, Joey and Candy’s relationship could perhaps be taken as a pastiche of this, but only at a pinch.
Thank god Tate and Lipkin’s characters had a more interesting relationship. Still, Andrews’ voice, too, was lovely and very expressive. Tate had a fine pair of lungs on her, although – as I think many have noted – her accent sways from Southern to Australian and back with astonishing rapidity.
This is a show, then, where the overall scrappiness of plot, and the general blandness of the music lets a strong cast down. Tate and Lipkin’s comic talent deserves better than jokes about having a long name, or being shot in the foot. I should also mention David Birrell’s excellently camp number in the role of General Westcott. There were just so many random moments in this musical that the real issues of nuclear bombs, when to run away and when to stick around, and indeed the central love story between Candy and Joey weren’t focused on nearly enough. That being said, it’s still an enjoyable evening out; the cast is of a high enough quality to smooth over the cracks, and there are quite a few pretty funny moments. Miss Atomic Bomb isn’t one you should be hurrying to buy tickets for, but if you’ve already booked definitely go, you’ll have a fun night out.
Miss Atomic Bomb at the St James Theatre: 2/5 stars