Union Theatre, London – until 19 November 2016
The true story behind Rumpy Pumpy is both noble and remarkable. Jean Johnson and Shirley Landers, two stalwart Hampshire grandmothers and pillars of the WI no less took it upon themselves to try and right the conditions of the county’s sex workers.
Their research saw them travel the world in a pursuit of dignity and safety for the women. Barbara Jane Mackie has taken their tale and transformed it into a musical, first seen last year and now making a brief re-appearance at London’s Union Theatre before a hoped-for national tour and possible movie treatment too.
Likened to “Calendar Girls meets London Road”, Rumpy Pumpy actually falls short of both. The performances may well be flawless throughout, led impressively by the trio of Louise Jameson and Tricia Deighton as Johnson and Landers respectively alongside Linda Nolan’s Holly, a Portsmouth Madam – but that’s about it. Aside from occasional gems (act one’s Red Bull and Cigarettes is particularly punchy), the songs lack depth.
Likewise Mackie’s book, for all its truthful bedrock, reverts too often to clumsy cliché. The baddy female cop, DC Hecks (a good effort from Basienka Blake) is more Keystone than the Javert / Frollo nemesis that Mackie may have had in mind and none of the writer’s verses match the caustically poignant wit that Boublil and Schoenberg imbued in Lovely Ladies from Les Miserables or that Kander and Ebb were able to capture in their work. The evening’s numerous numbers that are performed in fishnets and lingerie hint at a show that is more of a “Chicago Lite” than innovative new writing.
Paul Smith’s solo hard work on the piano offered a fluid accompaniment and if Gregor Donnelly’s costumes were a little unimaginative, at least the money spent on shoes wasn’t wasted – the heels on display were stunning! There may yet be an entertaining film to be made here – the locations themselves from Pompey’s grime to New Zealand via Nevada are potentially mouthwatering. But this worthy homage to the working girl needs work.
Runs until 19th NovemberPhoto credit:Scott Rylander