Miss Atomic Bomb, St James Theatre, review: Catherine Tate is absurdly over the top

Still, it’s a slick show, with plenty of pizzazz and some fun performances

Holly Williams
Tuesday 15 March 2016 13:11
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Catherine Tate (Myrna Ranapapadophilou) and various cast in Miss Atomic Bomb.
Catherine Tate (Myrna Ranapapadophilou) and various cast in Miss Atomic Bomb.

Once again, truth is stranger than fiction: this new musical takes inspiration from the real-life beauty pageants held to celebrate atomic bomb testing outside Las Vegas in the early Fifties, before the real dangers of fall-out and radiation were known.

Candy is a plucky sheep farmer; she falls for a deserting soldier, who sets up a cash-prize beauty pageant in order to keep his brother’s hotel business afloat, or he’ll be shot by the mob… Candy also needs cash, or her trailer will be repossessed; for all that it’s an audaciously daft plot, you can probably guess how she might be able to save herself.

Miss Atomic Bombs is ripe with a cartoonish cast of supporting characters, aggressively sending up everything from yee-haw rednecks to the overly-optimistic patriotism of the military in the atomic age; even the beauty pageant is – thankfully – mined for grotesque comedy more than titillation.

The problem is that too much of it really isn’t funny. Adam Long, Gabriel Vick and Alex Jackson-Long’s writing tends to balloon like a mushroom cloud; it’s just too obvious, too broad, too much. The one main joke – let’s juxtapose a Really Sinister Thing like a bomb with a lot of kitsch, all-American, patriotic gusto for said bomb – is effectively made in the first scene and then we’re in for diminishing returns. I hoped the second half would get dark and twisted, but instead the tone remains remorselessly – if ironically - upbeat. This is actually pretty bad taste.

Miss Atomic Bomb, St James Theatre.

Still, 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. Love interest Dean John-Wilson has a superb voice, which nicely sets up his musical pastiche – he has a ballad about how, when life gets hard, it’s best to just… run away. Bill Deamer and Adam Long’s choreography and direction ensure the whole thing flows seamlessly round the stage, although I wasn’t a fan of Jack Henry James’ pretty naff projected backdrops.

The music is peppy: a mix of country-inflected ditties, golden age numbers replete with tap dancing show girls, and Les Mis-style parodies. The lyrics zing with hard-working rhymes about atomic beauty queens - “to stare too long would be unwise! She will incinerate your eyes!” – and nuclear fission alike – “Just one little neutron and whoosh! you’ve begun/with a fireball hotter than fifteen suns”.

But it’s hard to switch emotional gears if the whole show is a great big knowing wink, and accordingly we cannot care about these characters. And it certainly seems weird that what is at stake here is a trailer and a third-rate hotel, when the show is about the frickin’ atomic bomb. The historic backdrop for this play is apocalyptic weapons being used as a form of entertainment – of course that’s ironic when the setting is vacuous, vulgar Vegas, and they mine that for potential. But it’s also a genuinely astonishing, and troubling, historical moment, a richer source of fascination than this thin fare really knows what to do with.

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