The romance that rocked Strait Street | Philip Glassborow, Polly March & Larissa Bonaci

Following its debut in Valletta, musical production The Star of Strait Street – which recounts the true and bittersweet wartime romance between Christina Ratcliffe and Adrian Warburton – is returning for another show. Writer Philip Glassborow and actresses Polly March and Larissa Bonaci about the show

Larissa Bonaci (left) and Polly March. Photo by Lance Anthony
Larissa Bonaci (left) and Polly March. Photo by Lance Anthony

What are the origins of The Star of Strait Street, and how did the concept develop into the production which we will be experiencing?

Philip Glassborow: I’m a writer based in Britain, and I visited Malta for the first time just a few years ago when Polly March directed my musical ‘The Great Big Radio Show’ at the Manoel Theatre. I fell head-over-heels in love with Valletta and the islands and the Maltese people, as well as the talent base of gifted actors and singers one can find here. Then I heard about a true-life love story set against the background of World War II.  And it sounded like a wonderful subject for a musical play – because Christina Ratcliffe was an entertainer working at the Morning Star, just off Strait Street, and so we could bring in some of the wonderful swing music of the 1940s which she would have performed.

Which aspect of the ‘Strait Street experience’ would you say the story taps into, and do you think it lends a contemporary relevance to the production?

Glassborow: Strait Street was always a vibrant hub for entertainment. There were clubs and bars and cafes with live music catering for the visiting servicemen.  And alongside visiting singers like Christina Ratcliffe, and dancers like Levy Wine, there were many home-grown local performers such as ‘Bobby’ the female impersonator, and a contortionist called ‘The Sparrow’. Strait Street may have been the ‘red-light district’ of Valletta, but it also provided regular work for many musicians and performers.

The story clearly has a rich historical background – what would you say are some of the most striking details to emerge from this tale, and what does it reveal about Malta at that time?

Polly March: The quite extraordinary resilience and courage of the people of the Maltese Islands. Under heavy, continual bombardment, the men and women of the Royal Malta Artillery, The Police, The Civil Defence, those at the dockyards or at the airfields, all worked ceaselessly to keep the island free from occupation. They had no food, no fuel, no ammunition – and yet they fought on.

This little musical has, at its heart, a love song. A love song for the people of the Maltese Islands, whose courage and unquenchable spirit shone brightly at a time of terrible danger and privation.

While many people who saw the show originally were moved to tears by the memories it evoked, many younger ones seemed to have no idea what their grandparents and great-grandparents had endured.  They were moved too, and wanted to know more. 

Beyond the historical context, what is the emotional core of the story, and how does it come across in the production?

March: Christina met Adrian when he was stationed here in Malta; she was working as an entertainer at ‘The Morning Star’.  Once the war started and the dance hall closed,  she created The Whizz Bangs Concert Party, and they toured anywhere and everywhere.   And whilst doing that, she was also working as a ‘plotter’ at Lascaris War Rooms.  Most of the men and women working there were British, and she persuaded the RAF that the Maltese girls she knew did have the language skills to work as plotters as well, and her great pride was that in time her entire shift, of which she was Captain, was composed of Maltese girls, some as young as sixteen. And she taught them dance routines as well!  

Adrian was a recce pilot and away a lot; that they were in love was plain to all.  She had to continue here, doing the concert party  gigs and working at Lascaris, whilst he was flying missions. And sometimes, of course, she was on duty, when he was flying.  The tension must have been unbearable during those moments.

What you see in the play is Larissa Bonaci as Christina in the 1940s, and I play her in the 1970s.  The older Christina remembers the high points of her life, and conjures up her younger self.  That Christina takes us through the good times and the bad, the joys, the tears and fears. I get to play ten other roles as well, which may well be a record…..

The only known photo of Adrian Warburton and Christina Radcliffe, taken after November 21, 1942 on the roof of Christina’s apartment in Strait Street. Image arrives via Frederick Galea, and is featured in Paul McDonald’s book, ‘Malta’s Greater Siege & Adrian Warburton’. Though its authorship is uncertain, McDonald believes it was likely taken by War Office photographer Sergeant J. Deakin
The only known photo of Adrian Warburton and Christina Radcliffe, taken after November 21, 1942 on the roof of Christina’s apartment in Strait Street. Image arrives via Frederick Galea, and is featured in Paul McDonald’s book, ‘Malta’s Greater Siege & Adrian Warburton’. Though its authorship is uncertain, McDonald believes it was likely taken by War Office photographer Sergeant J. Deakin

When Adrian disappeared, in very mysterious circumstances, Christina always held on to the belief that he would never have left her, that he would be coming back for her, sometime.  He was the most decorated pilot in the RAF, with six awards for gallantry.  He was crazy and brave, the ultimate dare-devil hero – if anyone could come for her, he would. And so she waited.  And waited.  Until her death in 1988…

And she was awarded The British Empire Medal ‘for meritorious service and devotion to duty during the period of the heavy air bombardment of  Malta’.   

The letter telling her of the award was dated 26 May 1943. And, poignantly, we are performing on that very same day…

What do you make of the recent ‘revitalisation’of Strait Street? Would you say the production taps into some of the cultural and commercial currents that are influencing the Street’s emergence as a trendy spot in Valletta?

Larissa Bonaci: I would say that this performance is a typical example of that wave of revitalization, perhaps more from a cultural than a commercial aspect, given that it brings back the ‘buzz’ of the life of Strait Street in 1940’s.  

What do you make of the local theatrical scene? What would you change about it?

Bonaci: The local theatre scene, despite being constantly active, is rather limited in the sense that it is quite small. I think we are in the era where the notion of a ‘global’ Malta is becoming a relative reality and as such this island can use that potential to expand the local scene by taking it abroad and vice versa, invite foreigners to stage their work on the island. There is always room for more collaboration which speaks to an audience who is constantly looking to be moved by beautiful stories.

What’s next for you?

March: Straight into directing The Taming Of The Shrew, at San Anton Gardens, for the MADC.  And more performances of Star of Strait Street!

Bonaci: Well… hopefully a world-wide tour of Star of Strait Street! 

The Star of Strait Street will be performed at the MADC Clubrooms, Santa Venera on May 26 at 19:00 and 21:00. The show is presented under the musical direction of Geoff Thomas and choreography by Emma Loftus. Bookings: www.madc.com.mt, [email protected] or 7777 6232. The production is also touring throughout Malta and beyond.  For information about upcoming performances, or to enquire about booking a performance, send an email on [email protected]

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