If musical theatre is one of the hardest forms to get right, then an original musical comedy must certainly be the apex of that challenge. Five years in development, Miss Atomic Bomb lands at the St James Theatre with just enough energy to create an earth tremor, but is sadly far from the explosive hit it has the potential to be.
There's admirable work from all departments, and the show is certainly not a full write off. One of the biggest problems with the production, sitting in a mid sized venue, is without a doubt the scale. The St James Theatre sits awkwardly between a fringe venue and a smaller off-West End house, meaning that audience expectation is often skewed and the production suffers as a result.
Considering the incredible work that is often seen at the Southwark Playhouse and the Union Theatre, Miss Atomic Bomb is batting slightly above its weight, and would have perhaps been more suited to a smaller, more forgiving house, where the constraints of size and budget could have been embraced creatively rather than compromised.
It's a truly original and entertaining story – something that the writers must be commended for delivering. Set in 1950s America at the time of nuclear testing, the show is a mad-cap ménage of multi-narratives brought together by the collective fascination with the nuclear bomb – resulting in the most distasteful yet hilariously shocking beauty pageants with elements of classic farce and screw-ball comedy thrown in for good measure.
That said, the book heaves under the multiple strands it's constantly trying to keep in the air. At times it feels over stuffed and threatens to collapse with no consistent voice holding the elements together and like a juggler on horseback, we're constantly waiting to see which plot point hits the floor first. Some extended gags that may have worked well in the rehearsal room – Tate's “don't make me go to the Sheep Farm” 'bit' and the word “zucchini” - fail to pick up more than a slight giggle and end up feeling like in-jokes the audience is excluded from.
In composition, writers Adam Long, Gabriel Vick and Alex Jackson-Long have followed the musical theatre rule book almost too closely for their own good. All of the relevant ingredients are present, from the overly exposed exposition number through to a selection of 'I Want' songs, taking in production numbers and comedic asides for good measure. Whilst this is certainly admirable, in a post-'Hamilton' world this feels too traditional and doesn't take the form forward in any way.
One of the main issues regarding the show is the uneven tone that the production sets up. It's never quite sure how referential it is being and as a result the characters and actors seem to each be playing in their own musical, rather than pulling together. It's like a last minute memo has been placed on the call board and only half of the cast got the message.
The show succeeds when it isn't attempting to send-up the genre, but the elasticity of the book and certain numbers (the Les Mis reference and the Sheep song in particular) give such awkward jolts into parody and 'Forbidden Broadway' territory that it demeans a lot of the fantastic work that has been achieved up to that point. These moments feel like desperate attempts to 'catch all', playing into the current (and some would say dated) trend of winking to the audience, in the same vein as 'Spamalot', 'Urinetown' and 'Something Rotten'. This method only works if the entire show and cast are pulling in this direction, but Miss Atomic Bomb has greater and more substantial battles to fight.
I was particularly frustrated with how glibly the second act (spoiler alert) 'coming out' scene was played – it was wholly unnecessary and felt like a cheap addition to bring the two characters together to fulfil the need for a “You're Timeless to Me” 10.45 number. In a show set in 1950s America, you can't just throw in that information about two key characters and not explore it further within either the context of the time, or the context of the characters themselves. A huge miss-fire.
The clinical and depressing looking set adds nothing to the production, and the projections insult an audience's ability to use their imagination. A staircase to nowhere frames the dance floor apron that seems to only service the larger dance numbers, thus creating an obvious internal struggle within the piece itself. With two directors credited, one being writer Adam Long and the other choreographer Bill Deamer, the show once again finds itself tugged in opposite directions. There's the half that wants it to be a full out dance show, something that's clearly seen in the set and overly sparse playing space, but the other half wants to use the drama to make a statement. You can almost see the joins between the direction, but once again they don't seem to be working for the same collective goal. Moments push the musical to be a flashy dance piece, where movement does nothing to serve the overall dramaturgy of the piece. It becomes too much about the overly complicated 'tits and teeth' footwork at times, with no sense of narrative, ultimately dancing for dancing's sake. There are admirable attempts at a Casey Nicholaw-esque production number, and whilst the steps may be there, the dramatic groundwork has not been done to allow these moments to really take off as well they might.
Musically, the score is varied and plays on the pastiche and parody model well. There are some fantastic numbers and those where we learn about character's wants, needs and ambitions are the ones that land. Weaker numbers vamp on shaky comic territory – flogging worn out jokes to death, with clichés such as “I won't stop 'till I reach the top” sitting awkwardly alongside grade school comedy “I'll mop the floor with your Christian Dior”.
The cast give a committed and overwhelmingly strong performance that allows the stronger moments in the material to really deliver. Florence Andrews is an utter revelation as sheep farmer Candy – displaying incredible vocals alongside an unfaltering belief in the role that serves her arc to the very end. She holds it together whilst those around her corpse and she enjoys the most well-written character which sticks out as having depth, clear goals, obstacles and resolution.
Dean John-Wilson delivers the two-dimensional overly earnest shtick well, standing him in good stead for his upcoming Disney Prince début. Simon Lipkin holds a lot of the humour together, and manages to find nuance in his character, whilst proving himself to be one of our finest musical theatre actors. Daniel Boys is somewhat underused in a grievously underdeveloped character, but his voice is consistently on point and he nails the tone of what he has been asked to do.
Much has been written about Catherine Tate's wavering accent which manages to take in at least three continents throughout the evening, but her trademark physical comedy and skill for finding the correct expression levitate her somewhat random character to key supporting level. You're never quite clear what her character is doing there, where she has come from or why she's friends with Candy, and she is dealt an unfair hand with some of the weaker numbers in the show. She zones out when she's not speaking, and at times doesn't feel hugely sold on the production as whole, which creates a blank onstage energy.
I can't help feel that the show is wrestling with itself and what it truly has the potential to be. The satire is never quite deep enough – and it's this element that is by far the most entertaining and enlightening. For such a rich topic, the focus needs to be sharper and more consistent – less sending up of the genre and form and more about the comedic and entertaining potential within the concept itself. The score leaves you with a couple of earwormers and thanks to the committed delivery by a hugely talented cast, you leave the theatre somewhat sold on the show's overall merits.
"There’s a kernel of something potentially intelligent and interesting here, particularly on the themes of personal and political betrayal. But the show goes for a 1950s screwball comedy style and misses it not just by a mile but by an entire exclusion zone."
Lyn Gardner for The Guardian
"Those with sophisticated tastes should probably run for the hills and not look back. But even though it’s overlong, I have to confess to experiencing a steady rumble of grudging admiration that often erupted into outright laughter."
Dominic Cavendish The Telegraph
"It’s a slick show, with plenty of pizzazz and some fun performances – Florence Andrews is winning as Candy, Catherine Tate is absurdly OTT as her fashion-obsessed sidekick, and Simon Lipkin makes for an endearingly hapless hotel manager."
Holly Williams for The Independent
"The cast strive to make it work, but they need more conventional weapons – and a plot capable of causing tremors."
Patrick Marmion for The Daily Mail
"Too many plotlines compete for attention, and the quality of the songs is uneven. Some lyrics are appealingly silly, and Bill Deamer’s choreography has plenty of snap, but the zany likeability of the more emotionally charged scenes is overwhelmed by samey tunes and messy storytelling."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard