The Stripper – St James Studio, London

Book: Carter Brown
Music: Richard Hartley
Lyrics: Richard O’Brien
Director: Benji Sperring
Reviewer: Stephen Bates

“I’m interested in her deeply on a superficial level” a lascivious cop confides to the audience on first sight of Dolores, the voluptuous stripper of the title. The line places us instantly in the world of film noir and it is a pity that there are not many more like it in this musical from the songwriting team behind The Rocky Horror Show.

Having first appeared in Australia in 1985, the show pre-dates the similar City of Angels, but the venue here plays a big part in how this revival comes across. St James Studio is configured, as usual, like a night club, with a cocktail bar in the corner and tables placed around the stage. Alex Beetschen’s swinging jazz band adds further to the cabaret feel and, if we had been seeing a solo set featuring the magnificent soulful voice of Gloria Onitiri (Dolores), it would have been close to a five-star show.

Onitri is completely at home here, but Carter Brown’s book from his pulp fiction novel belongs somewhere else. Dead bodies, smoke-filled dives, villainous characters and femmes fatale are plentiful in a tale that lies somewhere between an authentic crime thriller and a pastiche of film noir. The location is Pine City, Southern California in 1962.

The plot has something to do with a girl jumping or being pushed from a high rise and an ensuing police investigation led by Lieutenant Al Weaver (Sebastien Torkia) that involves the girl’s cousin Dolores, a strip joint, a florist, a seedy dating agency and so on. Unfortunately, the progression of the story is laboured and humourless and several of what decent quips there are fall on stony ground amid the tedium.

Unfathomable plotting goes with this territory, but, here, more confusion is added by too few actors playing too many roles. Hannah Grover, Marc Pickering and Michael Steedon all do tremendous work changing wigs and costumes at record speed and contributing great vocals, but it must be as head-dizzying for them as it is for the audience. Director Benji Sperring, who has an excellent track record with fringe musicals, brings sparkle to the musical routines, but the book is always working against his efforts when the singing stops. Happily, Richard Hartley’s varied and tuneful score and Richard O’Brien’s sharp (and occasionally filthy) lyrics are excellent. Song styles include cool jazz, blues, rock’n’roll, Latin American and sha-la-la early 60s pop. Torkia, gyrating to Man of Steel, takes the suggestiveness of Elvis several stages further and later woos half the ladies in the audience individually as he croons There’s Many a True Word Said in Bed.

Torkia’s strong central presence is key to holding everything together when it looks like falling apart and keeping it going when it threatens to grind to a halt. Pulp fiction can be fun on the printed page, film noir is terrific on screen, but neither translates too well to the stage in the form seen here. If The Stripper never really gels fully as a musical, it offers the significant compensations of great songs and matching performances – the ingredients of top class cabaret in fact,

Runs until 13 August 2016 | Image:Tristram Kenton

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