Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler?

A brave attempt to recreate Blitz spirit sounds one too many wrong notes

<strong>Blonde Bombshells

To have a couple of actors in a play who have to cope with delivering a bit of live music is one thing. To have eight actors who also have to be on-stage masters of the piano, trumpet, double bass, trombone, clarinet, sax and drums in a 1940s-pastiche big band is quite another. Alan Plater's Blonde Bombshells of 1943, which demands the musical proficiency thus outlined, never quite manages to escape the suspicion that its cast will be made up of A-list musicians, but B-list performers.

Plater's play, which has been brought to Hampstead from the Octagon Theatre in Bolton, was inspired by the all-girl dance bands of the WWII years. His depiction of bereaved babes bravely tooting their trombones while air-raid sirens wail - a sort of Band Girls, as opposed to Land Girls - has already had one incarnation as a BBC film that depicted the women years after the war had ended.

Rewriting the play for stage, Plater said that "it seemed more interesting to look at them when they were young". Unfortunately, in the process the play seems to have been rather over-juvenated, and now looks more like a worthy school production than anything else.

The first problem is that the cast list is straight out of Cliché Cupboard. There's the firm but fair bandleader, two sad (ie, bitchy) women whose husbands have been sacrificed for the war effort, and a jolly pianist who plays honky-tonk while smoking Woodbines. But bless my seamed stockings, the band is in trouble! Four other Bombshells have run off with some naughty GIs, and there's to be a live broadcast that night in Hull with the BBs headlining. Cripes! What in Winston's name will happen?

We then segue straight into a weary audition sequence where, severally, an upper-crust army chick, a schoolgirl and (yes) a nun all turn up carrying gas masks and prove themselves worthy of Glenn Miller. Presented with a saxophone, which she has never played before, Betty (the schoolgirl) tosses back her plaits, adjusts her prefect badge and goes for "Tuxedo Junction" with panache. Miranda (the gorgeous army babe) proves herself to be a knockout singer, and perfect at both trumpet and trombone though unable to read music, while Sister Lily deftly hooks her banjo on to her crucifix and, sandals tapping, gives George Formby a run for his money. Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler? The show will go on.

There is just one problem: the band still needs a drummer. Who is this? Aaargh! A man in the audition room? What will the Blonde Bombshells do? After all, they are blonde, and they are bombshells. But a nation is waiting in the blackout beside its communal Bakelite radio. All right, then, the man can join the band. He is a rather good drummer, after all. And we are at war, don't forget. As long as he keeps his winceyette vest out of sight, and does something about those hairy legs . . . And on and on this play goes, into the far-distant world that is the Carry On slush pile.

Thank God Plater has left a good bit of airtime for the actual band numbers, because once the BBs pick up their instruments and get going, the play starts to sing. The music is scintillating, the delivery delightful, the on-stage talent unmissable. Yet as soon as the notes from "It Ain't What You Do", or equivalent, fade away, it's back to the stilted dialogue, which actually contains the line: "Why do we laugh? It's to keep us from crying." That alone should have been a target for Bomber Harris, if not Plater's delete button. It's certainly old enough.

At the beginning of the play (supposedly set in old-lady flashback mode, like Titanic, but not as convincingly), we are warned to expect "love, sex, betrayal and death". Well, I didn't spot any of this quartet, unless you count the moment when the drummer snogs the schoolgirl, which I suppose might have qualified in all four categories, if Plater was intending his audience to go for an existential analysis. I'm afraid at the end of Blonde Bombshells of 1943 only one word sprang to mind - which was "brave".

For booking details log on to www.hampsteadtheatre.com

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Rosie Millard was previously Arts Editor for the NS and a Theatre Critic. She was the Arts Correspondent for BBC News for 10 years and is now a broadsheet columnist. She lives in London with heaps of small children, which may partially explain her love of going to the theatre.

This article first appeared in the 31 July 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Sell-out: Why hedge funds will destroy the world