Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Rue Magique

Lisa Forrell and Brett Kahr
Street Magic Productions
King’s Head, Islington
(2008)

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Theatre audiences are not unused to seeing Desdemona experience illegal strife in the bedroom; they are not, however, accustomed to seeing her charge for the pleasure.

As the bawdy-house patroness in Lisa Forrell and Brett Kahr’s Rue Magique, South London’s Desdemona (Melanie La Barrie) keeps an unlikely house: her thirteen year-old daughter- the ironically named Sugar- undertakes unsavoury chores; a trio of resident prostitutes resemble a subterranean, gritty parody of the Spice Girls; and the regular punters are a motley of gay, masochistic and fat men.

Despite The King’s Head’s north London location, there is nothing Angelic about this portrayal of the self-perpetuating, soul-destroying cage of prostitution.

Sugar’s father is a skeleton in her mother’s closet. A skeleton that, when eventually ousted, helps to explain, though not justify, why a mother would reduce her daughter to a commodity - a receptacle of perversion; void of agency, hope, future.

The mise-en-scène is part prison laundrette, part fetish-clinic: the back wall adorned with chains, a crucifix, a cupboard stocked with sardines; centre stage a table, the site of various forms of consumption; three chairs. The rest is barren - fittingly.

The macabre nature of the piece is often, as befitting a musical, farcically portrayed: Desdemona’s cleavage is so elevated it threatens to impair her vision; various sets of fish-netted legs lie more open than a twenty-four hour grocery store; Rem (Sugar’s suitor cum saviour) offers a kick-boxing routine worthy of an arthritic, kilted Scotsman.

When the production threatens to hit notes of poignancy it is hampered by the scale of its crudity (Desdemona encourages her clients to “leave your burdens in a woman’s bowels”) and its inflated, song-and-dance energy.

Content and genre are ill-fitting here. The Musical- as a form- can certainly accommodate grave themes. Rue Magique, however, strikes as a thematically serious spectacle that could do with being less spectacular.

That said, the piece has its magic moments: ‘Another kind of kiss’ is a subtle and touching ballad that captures both the anxiety of broken women and the earnest, pleading will of a love-struck young man; ‘You belong to me’ - Desdemona’s mercantile taunt to her powerless daughter - is delivered with a paralysing intensity; ‘The Viper’s song’- performed by awaiting clients in the brothel’s waiting room - is forthcoming in comic relief, if not entirely vital to the narrative’s fabric.

The pianist (David White) played and conducted with a diligence and delicacy that bespoke a Michelin-starred chef constructing an intricate Bulgarian dessert.

Musically, and vocally, not a hair was out of place.

The effort to diversify the show’s thematic focus by weaving a vagrant named Cardboard into the narrative (played with notable understatement by Julian Forsyth) seemed token. Sonia - a hooker of vaguely Eastern European origin - asks Cardboard, “You-have-intellect. Why-you-live-like this?” The sentiment evoked - that anyone is vulnerable to vagrancy- rightly attempts, if half-heartedly, to debunk conceptions of the homeless as sinister and deserving of their station.

Sugar’s plight is a sorry one. Desdemona presents a moral ambiguity to puzzle the shrewdest of judges. The author resists a fairy-tale ending: prostitution is a lingering, regressive reality of urban life. Rue Magique has social punch; but perhaps too much Punch and Judy.

Rue Magique is a largely successful, obviously heartfelt production, with a cast capable of steering it through a profitable run in North London. But it’s no angel.

Reviewer: Ben Aitken