The issue surrounding the dangers faced by sex workers who ply their trade on the streets occasionally rears its head when an action group or campaign gets publicity.
It’s an admirable cause – and one which two estimable ladies from Hampshire WI took up in a bid to improve conditions for the women. Such was the furore surrounding their campaign that it resulted in a Channel Four documentary, with the overly wordy title, The Ladies of the Hampshire WI and their Search for the Perfect Brothel.
Watched by BBC screenwriter and playwright, Barbara Jane Mackie, she thought it would be the perfect subject for a musical. Eight years later Rumpy Pumpy has made it to the central London fringe, opening this week at The Union Theatre after a brief foray to respectable Windsor and an earlier showcase in Islington.
With Linda Nolan as leopard-skin loving tart-with-a- heart, brothel Madam, Holly Spencer, and former Dr Who sidekick, Louise Jameson as not-so-straight-laced, WI member Jean Johnson, it should be a hit.
But if it was trying to follow in the wake of the Calendar Girls’ success, or prick our social consciences with its story about desperation in the face of the recession, redundancy and domestic abuse, it fails miserably.
Weak performances, a cheap set, rent-a-character stereotypes spouting clichéd dialogue, and trite, unnecessary songs, have produced a dull, uneven, unoriginal show. Even its title is bargain-basement, suggesting a bawdy, seaside-saucy romp when there’s nothing remotely funny about women forced to rent themselves out.
Rumpy Pumpy would have made more impact as a straight play. We’re talking about desperate women making a living by servicing men, working the only way they know how to pay bills and childcare. It’s not pleasant – in any way. Cutesy musical numbers do them and their business a disservice.
Yet here it has been sanitised and gift-wrapped, the girls all rather jolly, gossiping over “a brew” (a very northern expression for Portsmouth where this is set), comparing outfits and wigs. You’d think they were in a girls’ dorm rather than a squalid house, spreading their legs for a succession of sleazy punters.
Linda Nolan’s Holly, resplendent in typical tart’s uniform – clingy shirts, tight skirts, bottle blonde hair and too much make-up – pretends she is a mother hen but, in reality, makes money from the bump and grind of her girls. Even her daughter has been on the game.
WI member Jean Johnson and her best friend Shirley launch a campaign to try and legalise prostitution in a bid to get the girls off the streets and into a safe working environment.
In order to do this they travel the world (I’d love to know who funded the trip) looking for the perfect brothel. The reason why isn’t made clear. It’s an unusual fact-finding mission but one which takes them to the shop windows of Amsterdam and purpose-built ranches of Nevada, accompanied by a Ch4 film crew.
Back on home soil Holly and her girls – Polish teaching assistant, Goisa (Sally Frith), trainee barrister Carol (Liberty Buckland), policewoman Trish (Scarlet Wilderink) and battered wife Mags (Claudia Cadette) aid the campaign collecting signatures.
Meanwhile Holly has her hands full being pursued by a zealous woman detective spouting religious abuse – a particular favourite being “Whoremonger and anti-Christ” – who is determined to close down her business.
There are some good singing voices among the working girls but that doesn’t make up for this banal and lacklustre production.
Running at the Union Theatre until Saturday.
Rumpy Pumpy is riddled with stereotypes, clichéd dialogue, uninspiring songs and weak performances.