The high explosive and incendiary bombs from British Lancasters are raining down from the night skies onto 1943 Hamburg while the inhabitants cower in their shelters and the security police scour the streets for hostile elements: anti-Nazis, Jewish stragglers, black marketeers, deserters – and jazz enthusiasts, jazz being proscribed by the authorities as a degenerate emblem of American culture.
Yet deep in one bunker a little group of fans lives, breathes and plays, holding a candle of support both for this specific artistic freedom and for the wider cause of protest against the regime, linking themselves to the Sophie Scholl White Feather movement in Munich. It's this bunker and its environs, extending as far as the nearby Wilhelmsgymnasium, that comprise our field of action in Alex Thomas' musical, and the former has been beautifully realised by designer Rachael Twyford and her colleagues. A semi-circular backing of corrugated iron sheeting shelters a number of Swastika-stamped packing cases, a pair of steps and a draped chaise longue; nothing more. But the effect is somehow one of ordered disorder, and what with Jake Adams' intermittent explosions (neither too many nor too few), flickering lighting effects, AA guns and smoke machine (neither too much nor too little), an atmosphere of jazz-fiddling while Hamburg burns was perfectly achieved from small means.
It's all to the good that the atmosphere created was so redolent of sullen tension beyond the bunker and a bit of hedonism within, since the narrative arc of the play is slightly unbalanced: little happening until after halfway save in second-hand reportage, and then much later (the running time was a snappy 75 minutes) we get first an undeveloped romantic squabble, followed by Gestapo intervention (again, off stage); and the appearance of a downed U.S. airman, introducing a pistol and somewhat un-integrated melodrama, really pops up too late to make more than a fleeting impression. I don't know that this cascade of plot developments is really needed, but in any case, Swing Heil!'s narrative is not the real point here it is many times outweighed by the quality of all the other elements of the show - staging, direction, music, songs, choreography and acting. Of Alex Thomas' direction, I appreciated the balance he achieved between having his cast move and having them stand and deliver.
We kicked off with the rousing and contextually-subversive
.......His Majesty King George VI,
Thank God for the English!
from the jazz fan company led by Max (Max Penrose, a lithe, confident figure; a trained dancer – and it showed; in his solo in 'Why Won't They?' he graduated from floor to packing cases to great effect) before the interruption by Hitler Youth-type Otto (Charlie Cook), neat in his sinister uniform but turning out to be a schnapps-dispensing, Paris cigarette-toting ally. Then on with Flora Tucker's Eva taking the lead in 'It's Not Enough' and then the ensemble, keynote 'Swing Heil!'. Here and later, Flora impressed with a fine voice and ability to give out genuine rather than ersatz emotion, and I was sorry that her character all but disappeared after the halfway mark.
By now the quality of choreography, music and lyrics had imposed itself. The former, by Max Penrose and Nyroy Dixon, managed to wrap its high-energy, planned moves in an impression of a bunch of music lovers having fairly random fun – a difficult effect to produce, especially in amateur theatre. Lyrics were snappy (the Lauren Bacall reference was, I think, a slight anachronism; in 1943 she was an unknown) and the terrific songs by Alex Thomas had the harsh but tuneful quality, nodding to Kurt Weill and also John Kander's Cabaret music, that was perfectly suited to time, place and events. The three-piece band of piano, bass and Alex Thomas himself on drums gave it all they'd got, and I also liked Joel Stanley's moody saxophone spots, and not least his two-tone Bing Crosby shoes, later left as a poignant reminder of his presence following a Gestapo swoop.
Also from the cast I'd pick out Harriett Robson's Renny who particularly in her 'Every Woman for Herself' solo moved with decision and sang with emphatic diction, and Issy Crutchley as Inge had the most memorable line of all, encapsulating the bitter-sweet desperation of our jazz-lovers' predicament, when she offered to make over her virginity 'as a birthday present'.
This was the kind of show that leaves behind it regret that its manifestation was so fleeting; in this case a mere two performances. Swing Heil! ought to run and run in another venue - why not in an extended form? Vorwarts und aufwarts!