Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Burlesque

Book and Lyrics by Adam Meggido and Roy Smiles, music by Adam Meggido
Danielle Tarento and The Sticking Place in association with Jermyn Street Theatre
Jermyn Street Theatre
(2011)

Burlesque production photo

A Korean War radio news bulletin introduces this new musical, set in 1952, mainly in a US burlesque house coming to the end of its days, but it isn't just a show-biz story of the managers and acts caught up in that sad decline. This is also the time of the Senator McCarthy witch hunts and the entertainment business bowing before the power of the House Un-American Activities Committee and one half of the comic double act has already been hauled up before it and, calling on the Fifth Amendment, refused to name names, so that, on what looked like the verge of a Hollywood career, he has been forced to work in dumps like this out in the sticks.

Until the interval the politics are mainly in the background, the plot is more concerned with establishing the theatre's position and giving a glimpse of the stories of the artistes in the company, though the arrival of a coolly sinister man from the FBI is sign that the shadow of the power of the rabid right is always there.

It is a tuneful show, full of show-style numbers, some being part of the theatre's acts and others carrying on the story with Martin Thomas's red velvet curtained proscenium serving to give us both on stage and behind the curtain and, when the tabs are open, the girl's seedy dressing room revealed behind. The girls are Alicia Davies's Honey, the straight man's girl friend, worried about what is going to happen to them, a thoroughly nice girl who describes herself as 'an unmarried Catholic stripper who's pregnant', Victoria Serra's Amy who seems an opportunist gold-digger, though there is a back-story to gain her some sympathy, and newcomer Sinead Mathias's showgirl Georgina, whose dancer boyfriend (Jeremiah Harris-Ward) is giving her problems (this pair a reminder of the situation of Afro-Americans in the 1950s).

The funny men are Johnny Reno, whose father took him along to Communist meetings when he was a youngster and hence is being pressed to name those he saw at them, and American-Irish Rags Ryan who is beginning to rely too much on the bottle and has his own secrets to hide. Jon-Paul Hevey and Chris Holland make them a believable double act. Their material has a used up feel that matches that dying era but they play it with a timing and a vitality that suggests real talent being blocked by the black list. In fact Holland is such a charismatic performer that he could steal the show if he chose to do so.

The same could be said of Buster Skegg as Lula Malkah, the old pro who helps run things, a lovely rich performance of a kindly caring soul, and a powerful voice that carries her numbers with ease, but she is nicely matched with Linal Haft's manager Freddie Le Roy, a fast- talking Jewish old-timer who can't resist the chorines (who've often taken him for a ride) and Lula has a lovely number telling him that it is "Time to Give Up the Girls" and "You know it's wrong/To live your whole life through your schlong". Meggido, directing his own script, keeps things well balanced. This is a team effort, though a couple of numbers do seem over extended and a couple of the lighter voices need to be stronger, even in this small venue, if we are going to hear the lyrics properly.

In the first act none of the songs explore the political situation but the second half, after a number in which Red Riding Hood strips down to red nipple clips, the tension grows as Johnny is persuaded that he should go in front of the committee again. As the pressures build, the chorines now repeatedly returning singing a number called "Betrayal", there is an unexpected revelation and while some are pressing him to name names he now finds himself with someone much closer fearing exposure, yet still he goes ahead.

As Rags expresses his fears about what Johnny will do, building to a climax that needs making more of, the hearing continues and Johnny starts to name his names - but they are not the reds under the bed that McCarthy and Nixon are expecting, but the American right who burn synagogues and persecute blacks.

It is difficult to know where one could go from there - for in real life this would have been a recipe for martyrdom or disaster. Mediggo choses a fantasy number reprising the comic's double act with the Johnny and the ghost of Rags. It is a bit of a cop out but it allows the musical an up-beat ending that matches the euphoria the audience must surely feel at someone standing up against the evil that had seized control of the American psyche.

"Burlesque" runs at the Jermyn Street theatre until 18th December 2011

Reviewer: Howard Loxton