News Column

What Exactly Is a Burlesque Musical?

May 23, 2013


Matthew Bugg finds that when people hear the word burlesque, they tend to picture something different than what he's got in mind. In particular, they picture the 1950s variant - the cheesecake bumping and grinding that is essentially stripping.

For Matthew, who wrote Miss Nightingale, the 1940s-set bur- lesque musical, that sort of thing holds no interest at all.

He's more interested in the burlesque tradition that dates to the 1700s and derives from the Italian word for joke. It's parody, often involving sexuality, that makes a comment about social mores and circumstances in society.

The thing that's different about burlesque is that in burlesque, the performer is always in control, he said. It's a very, very powerful thing for the performer.

Audiences often have no idea what to expect. But so far in the show's tour, Matthew's been pleased to see that they're willing to have a go anyway.

After a recent run in Ipswich, they looked at who they were getting in and were impressed by the diversity. It hit and audience that was interested in musicals, an audience that was interested in drama, an audience that was interested in new writing, he said.

Then there was the age diversity - everybody from young theatre- goers to people who were the characters' age during the war.

It was an extraordinary testament to the subject matter and to the openness of audiences, he said.

When he started writing Miss Nightingale, the Second World War era wasn't even in his sights. He started with a contemporary setting, but by draft three or four he was having problems.

The story I wanted to tell wasn't working in a modern context, he said.

So a wartime story began to emerge. It involves a shy singer from the North trying to make her way in wartime London along with her songwriter friend, a Jewish European refugee. Eventually they meet a wealthy nightclub owner and the singer reinvents herself as sexy, controversial Miss Nightingale - but that's just the beginning.

Matthew found the 1940s worked well largely because it's such a well-known period that things can be referred to without being explicitly stated or spelled out. It's also a time that seems to hold an endless fascination.

There is a shorthand that comes with the territory with that period, he said.

At a very basic level, people are fascinated by that period of history. It's a time filled with peril, but also of liberation. Particularly for women. Their lives were their own, he said.

He's been enjoying the tour, although these dates in Nottingham will be particularly special.

It's a bit of a homecoming for me, he said.

Nottingham is largely where Matthew's career kicked off. His Playhouse debut was in 2000, when he was just out of drama school and Playhouse artistic director Giles Croft was new in town. He worked on Giles' Playhouse debut, Brian Friel's Wonderful Tennessee.

Over the years he's also worked on Nottingham productions including All Quiet On The Western Front, Polygraph and The Tempest, where he traded in his usual behind-the-scenes work for a role as Ariel.

It's fairly rare that I tread the boards, he said. I'm almost always on the other side.

He'll be back on the other side of the divide this time, watching as the purest form of burlesque is introduced to an audience that's probably not seen it before.

Miss Nightingale runs from tonight to Saturday at the Theatre Royal. Tickets cost Pounds 14 to Pounds 23. Book on, 0115 989 5555 or in person at the Theatre Royal box office.

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