Naughty but not nice
LADIES of easy virtue are familiar figures in musical theatre, from Oliver! to Les Miserables. This lowbudget new musical, written and directed by Lisa Forrell, with music and lyrics by Brett Kahr, goes one stiletto further and locates the entire show in a brothel.
It’s set in present-day Camberwell, a part of London improbably billed as “further south than you have ever been”. The plot concerns birthday girl Sugar, who is told by her mother Desdemona – an agoraphobic Creole madam – that she must “graduate to level two” with punters now that she has turned 13. As a special treat, she will be allowed to keep all of that day’s takings.
A childish innocent in a world too grim for most adults, Sugar seems to know nobody in the area she has lived all her life and has apparently never even visited the corner shop until the day we meet her. There she encounters kindhearted Rem, who seems to offer a way out of her plight.
There is currently a generation of talented young dramatists dedicated to bringing the idioms and rhythms of Londoners at the margins to the modern stage. Unfortunately, Forrell is not one of them. Her tale could be grittily shocking, but it is treated with such trite sentimentality here that it never seems remotely authentic.
The performers, including a doe-eyed Nadia Di Mambro as Sugar and Melanie La Barrie as her purring tigress of a mother, are all way too good for the material.
There is little any of them can do with unmemorable tunes – scored as if we’re in 19th-century Paris rather than 21st-century London – and flimsy lyrics. The supporting characters are one-dimensional stereotypes – one of them is even called Cardboard – and the singlestrand story is not enough to sustain a two-hour show.
Occasionally it rises above the banal. A song called This House Is Clean, about prostitutes disinfecting the brothel after the punters have left, is one of two numbers which offer some desperately needed wit, and La Barrie pitches herself mightily into a pair of belting emotional songs at the end of each act.
But the whole business is in very dubious taste. I wouldn’t normally give away the resolution, but if I tell you that the “happy” ending here involves Sugar sobbing in her mother’s arms and getting special permission not to do any punters for a whole day, you will see how woefully ill-conceived the show is.
CALL ME MADAM: Melanie La Barrie stars as Desdemona