Lost Lionel Bart musical ‘Blitz!’ revived for show at JW3

Spielers amateur dramatics group. Picture: Nigel Sutton

Spielers amateur dramatics group. Picture: Nigel Sutton - Credit: Nigel Sutton

Actor Debbie Chazen tells Scarlet Howes about how her amateur theatre company are tackling the Oliver! director’s early work.

When Jewish community centre JW3 opened its doors two years ago, actor Debbie Chazen was asked: “What would you like to do?”

She responded by starting her own community project which quickly became amateur dramatics company Spielers.

The name – which translates as a “person who speaks fluently or glibly” – is an apt description for the troupe of budding thespians who have already tackled immigration in 1908 America in Israel Zangwill’s The Melting pot, revived 1898 Yiddish play Mirele Efros by Jacob Gordin, and are now unearthing Lionel Bart’s lost musical Blitz!

“We did our first show with 10 members. By the second we’d grown to 35. Suddenly, I had all these parts to cast so I had to find a play that could be divided into four acts with the same characters played by different people. Now we’ve got over 40 we looked for a musical for lots of people.”

With members aged from 10-70, Blitz fit the bill of a cross-generational project with a Jewish interest. Based on Bart’s wartime childhood experiences, the musical opened in the West End in 1962 while his smash hit Oliver! was still playing.

At the time the most expensive musical ever produced, it ran for 18 months but wasn’t performed for more than 20 years because the original scores went missing during the writer/composer’s hallucinogenic drug-taking period.

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“I looked at a lot of musicals and Blitz! stood out as absolutely perfect for our needs because it’s got a Jewish story-line, a children’s chorus and lots of women in it. Like most amateur dramatic companies there’s more women in our midst. I actually hadn’t heard of it before although I’m a big Lionel Bart fan.”

Set in the East End against a backdrop of bombs, evacuees and market stall cries, Blitz! is a Romeo and Juliet love story of the Jewish Blitztein family and the cockney Lockes.

The show, which was revived in the 80s when a teenage devotee tracked down the lost scores, never achieved the Broadway success of Oliver! Indeed Noel Coward commented dryly that it was “twice as loud and twice as long as the real thing”.

“I don’t really know why it wasn’t as successful,” says Chazen. “It’s clearly not as brilliant as Oliver! but it has a lot of charm. Once you hear them, the songs won’t leave your head – ever. I wake up singing them, I dream of them. After rehearsals I go home and I’m singing them in my sleep.

Maybe because the Blitz is such a British thing it didn’t translate in America.”

With an impressive portfolio of TV jobs and critically acclaimed theatrical work, including Mike Leigh’s Topsy Turvey, Holby City, The Smoking Room and sketch show Tittybangbang, the 44-year-old decided that it was time to try her hand at directing – or at least co-directing with Adam Lenson.

“It’s interesting. We work together very well as I approach it from an actor’s point of view and he approaches it from a director’s point of view. Somehow in the middle we meet. I didn’t know if I could direct before I started Spielers but I sort of think I can now.”

After recently marrying her partner of 10 years, the Golders Green resident is still juggling everything Spielers related and is about to start work on a Gary Barlow musical based on Calendar Girls.

Chazen admits she hasn’t given herself an easy year.

“I think in hindsight organising a wedding and a production at the same time is probably not the best idea I’ve ever had. But we’re getting there.”Scarlet Howes

Blitz! will run from 18-25 October at JW3. Visit jw3.org.uk