Set in London in 1942, Miss Nightingale is a love story between two men at a time when homosexuality was illegal. This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England, but here actor, musician and producer Tobias Oliver explains why the show is still relevant today.
Hi Tobias, what is the play about?
Gay sex, scandal and showbusiness 1940s style! As saucy new cabaret star Miss Nightingale takes London by storm, the two men in her life start a secret passionate affair; one an aristocratic club owner, the other her Jewish refugee composer. But things don’t turn out the way you would expect. Miss Nightingale isn’t your usual musical. It is both raucously funny and deeply touching with a gripping story and some very saucy songs.
Do you know if there is any truth in the storyline?
There’s both a lot of historical as well as emotional truth in the story of Miss Nightingale. In 1942 homosexuality was still illegal and that year 20 men in Wales were charged with ‘gross indecency’. It sparked a savage media witch hunt. The men were sent to prison for up to 12 years; one committed suicide, he was just 19 years old, and two more tried to kill themselves. The media nicknamed gay men ‘the enemy within’ believing that they were weak and more likely to betray their country.
Miss Nightingale first appeared in London as a
small-scale production before going on to have five UK tours – how does it feel to be back in London this time with a much longer run?
Absolutely fantastic. We’ve long wanted to bring the show back to London and had several offers but they never felt quite right. When the opportunity to bring Miss Nightingale to The Vaults in Waterloo came up we jumped at the chance.
As well as producing the show, you also play Clifford – tell us about him.
Clifford is the stage manager at the cabaret club, run by Sir Frank, at which Miss Nightingale is launched to scandalous notoriety. He is the most straightforward and honest character in the show. Like the rest of the cast I am both an actor and a musician – unlike most conventional musicals we don’t have a separate band, so I also play the double bass.
Miss Nightingale is set in 1942. How is the story relevant to today?
We live in troubled and troubling times with hate crimes on the rise and hate-fuelled politicians gaining popularity. 2017 also sees the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales. But with homosexuality still illegal in far too many countries, Miss Nightingale is a timely – yet disarmingly entertaining – reminder of the progress we’ve made but the steps we have still to travel.
When we first performed the show six years ago we obviously had no idea how relevant it would seem in 2017. Sadly given recent events both in the UK and overseas the message of the piece seems even more relevant than ever. We don’t know what will happen to LGBT rights after Brexit because much of the protection we have gained against discrimination came from the EU. The far right is on the rise across Europe with a particularly regressive, homophobic platform. Then there’s the frankly terrifying, virulently anti-LGBT agenda of the Trump government in the United States. I hope in even the smallest most entertaining of ways we can help challenge hate and encourage people to stand up against prejudice.