Rumpy Pumpy

Barbara Jane Mackie
Tea and Crumpets Productions
Union Theatre

Linda Nolan as Holly Spencer and Louise Jameson as Jean Johnson Credit: Scott Rylander
The Blue Saloon girls: Liberty Buckland, Claudia Cadette, Linda Nolan, Sally Firth and Scarlet Wilderink Credit: Scott Rylander
James Charlton as TV crew, Tricia Deighton as Shirley Landels and Louise Jameson as Jean Johnson Credit: Scott Rylander
Scarlet Wilderink as Trish and Liberty Buckland as Carol Credit: Scott Rylander

In 2006, five young women were murdered in Ipswich, all of them prostitutes. It made Jean Johnson of the Holyborne Womens Institute decide working girls needed protection and gained the support of her fellow members.

Seconded by Cheriton WI, where her friend Shirley Landels was a leading light, they put a resolution forward to Hampshire WI to decriminalise prostitution and improve conditions for working girls that gained 100% support. Channel 4 then commissioned a documentary which followed Jean and Shirley on an international fact-finding trip investigating the sex trade and looking for “the perfect brothel”.

That is the real life background to Barbara Jane Mackie’s musical which begins by introducing us to Jean and Shirley as they try to make contact with working girls on the street in Portsmouth. This is comedy not documentary and the Madam they now meet and her girls at the Blue Saloon are presumably fictional along with their rather farcical clients, who include a priest and a policeman (as is one of the girls), while another is a barrister in training. There is also a heavy-handed sub-plot of a vindictive six-foot female detective, determined to nail a conviction, who herself proves surprisingly vulnerable to charms of the girls.

The publicity suggests it is “the female Full Monty”; like that show it doesn’t deliver it and, though saucy in a comic way with the girls curves clothed provocatively, it isn’t really titillatory though it is full of jokes like the comment on an arrival who has come early that “they usually do”.

The script doesn’t offer much in the way of characterisation which owes more to the conventions of farce than social studies, though it follows the open-minded investigators to the red light district of Amsterdam where they take their own turns in those red-lit windows, a Nevada “bunny ranch” which they aren’t keen on and to an egalitarian establishment in New Zealand, a typical NZ SOOB (Small Owner-Operated Brothel).

While it pays lip service to the aims of Johnson and her supporters, it isn’t a campaigning piece and as a straight play it would seem pretty thin but it is meant as a musical entertainment and it has nice tunes that aren’t very remarkable but are sung well, every word understandable, helped by being lightly scored for synthesiser (the drummer and bass in the programme now gone).

There are lively numbers such as the girls' jokily risqué “Red Bull and Cigarettes” and Holly’s duet with her assistant Mags “Life at the End of a Rope” and a brief romantic duet for Holly’s daughter Sandi (Alex Roots) and her boyfriend (James Charlton), but the numbers are brief and aren’t imposed on the story though their celebration of sex aids is neither as shocking or funny as may have been intended.

Simple, pared-down staging, centred on the Blue Saloon’s bare entry lobby, relies heavily on projections to indicate other settings and Simon Grieff’s direction places emphasis firmly on the performer. He is very well served by Louise Jameson and Tricia Deighton as the campaigning ladies: the redoubtable Jean and lively though stroke-stricken Shirley, and by the irrepressible Linda Nolan as big-hearted Holly Spencer in charge at the Blue Saloon.

In addition to those already mentioned are Craig Armstrong as the farcical Father Jerry among other roles, Liberty Buckland is Carol, a law-student supporting law studies by prostitution, Sally Firth gives great personality to a long-legged immigrant sex worker Goisa and Basienka Blake plays the lesbian detective with a masculine dominance that is suddenly undermined by the girls’ attentions.

It is a strange mixture of realistic playing and caricature that nearly works in the close quarters of the Union but, if Rumpy Pumpy took itself just a little more seriously instead of just being fun, it might actually be more effective and more amusing.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton