Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Theatre review: The Stripper

Theatrical memes seem to take turns - the spoon-playing looks to have pretty much passed the baton to the elaborate coup de théâtre meme now - so it's an unexpected and unwelcome return for one from the first few months of 2016, as the St James Theatre sticks strictly to the 8pm start time for shows in its basement Studio, despite the fact that The Stripper has a two-and-a-half hour running time. Pulp novelist Carter Brown adapted one of his own stories for the book of this 1982 musical with music by Richard Hartley and lyrics by Richard O'Brien - and there are moments when The Rocky Horror Show does indeed come to mind in the songs, even though the overall style has quite a different feel, going for a jazzy influence that reflects the seedy 1960s LA club where much of the action takes place.

Detective Al Wheeler (Sebastien Torkia) fails to stop a young woman from jumping to her death from a tall building, but drugs found in her system convince him it was something more suspicious than suicide. The clues lead him to a sinister dating agency run by a married couple who look suspiciously like brother and sister (Hannah Grover and Michael Steedon) as well as the titular stripper, the dead girl's cousin Deadpan Dolores (Gloria Onitiri.)

The Studio is very much a cabaret space although the St James does seem determined to keep putting theatre in it; at least the setting and musical style means The Stripper fits into the space a lot more comfortably than some of the past attempts to stage musicals there. It's still a bit of an awkward location though, and even though the (slightly cheaper) balcony seats where we were sitting are practically right on top of the actors, the atmosphere that seemed to have taken hold near the stage didn't really travel up to us. (A reflection on the theatre layout rather than Benji Sperring's production, I would say, as the - overall very good - actors all made the effort to include us.)

What the production can't manage is to make sense of the musical's weird tone; for the most part it's a po-faced parody of noirish potboilers, complete with incomprehensible plot and dubious attitudes to women, but O'Brien's lyrics sometimes take it in a direction of more bluntly stating the subtext - for the Act I finale Wheeler sings "You Give Me a Hard-On" to one of his many conquests. The different parodic styles don't really gel and, apart from an excellent climactic number with a fantastic belting vocal from Onitiri, the second act's songs aren't as good as the first's.

There's a lot of great work from the multitasking cast of five though, and a small band that doesn't drown them out. A surreal highlight has to be Marc Pickering as a corpse singing his own suicide note, with the rest of the cast manipulating him Weekend At Bernie's-style. Grover's comic ability also stands out as, among others, the creepy dating agency boss and a Latin American sexpot, but with that late start time meaning it was getting on to half past ten before the plot finally tied itself up, the heroic efforts of the cast weren't enough to keep me invested in The Stripper and her deranged coterie.

The Stripper by Carter Brown, Richard Hartley and Richard O'Brien is booking until the 13th of August at the St James Theatre's Studio.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Origin Photography.

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