sat 20/07/2024

The Stripper, St James Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

The Stripper, St James Theatre

The Stripper, St James Theatre

A musical take on pulp noir is frustratingly uneven

On the case: detective Al Wheeler (Sebastien Torkia) succumbs to the charms of Sherry (Hannah Grover)Origin8 Photography

Womanising detectives, shapely dames, gangsters and convoluted criminal conspiracies: Richard O’Brien and Richard Hartley’s 1982 musical take on Carter Brown’s California-set whodunit fiction is pulp noir to the max. However, unlike the pair’s previous collaboration, the indelible Rocky Horror Show, this is more homage than send-up – arch but fairly straightforward storytelling in place of riotous, risqué pastiche.

That’s problematic when Sixties sensibilities are presented to a modern audience with only the flimsiest attempts at subversion. The male gaze dominates, unashamedly, in objectification and innuendo less creative than the genre they reference (there’s nothing on Raymond Chandler’s “A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window”), and eventual open lust (sample lyric: “Baby, you give me a hard-on”). By the time we get to Gloria Onitiri’s awkward, full-frontal burlesque, the audience is basically just invited to ogle. Her subsequent justification that stripping gives her power doesn’t help matters.

The Stripper, St James TheatreO’Brien’s book – if gleefully silly – also takes an age to cover predictable story beats, and the dialogue handed to Sebastien Torkia’s hardboiled detective Al Wheeler (pictured right), who's investigating the suspicious death of a wannabe actress, is punishingly leaden. Really, we just want to get back to the music, by far the strongest aspect of the piece. Hartley’s lush, jazz-hot score is swing while you’re sleuthing: late Fifties/early Sixties big band, rock, doo wop and nods to period musicals, with plenty of toe-tapping, finger-snapping crooners and a good line in wistful, yearning blues.

Much of the action takes place in strip joint Club Extravaganza, and that cabaret sensibility extends to intimate performances in Benji Sperring’s staging. However, the layout of the St James studio presents a logistical challenge: if the actors engage with audience members seated at tables by the stage – and the most effective moments do involve some type of spontaneous, provocative interaction – those sitting up on the balcony miss out. Blocking is also an issue, with numerous sightline challenges created by the exceedingly narrow playing space.

A hard-working cast of five cover multiple roles. Torkia is more convincing once he gets his teeth into a number, but doesn’t put across the charm that makes his serial philanderer so irresistible to the opposite sex. As the booze-addled stripper with a heart of gold (groan), Onitiri’s vocals are smoky, sultry and wrenched from the soul. Diction’s sometimes an issue, but she's a spine-tingling talent. (Onitiri pictured below)

Hannah Grover, also a powerhouse singer, does an excellent job enlivening her stock types: a Spanish sexpot receptionist, icy blonde secretary and the peculiar proprietor of a lonely hearts agency. Marc Pickering and Michael Steedon provide strong support, both vocally and in comic characterisation, between them giving fun moments to a gruff sheriff, club-owning crime lord, dumb sidekick and awkward florist.

The Stripper, St James TheatreAlex Beetschen’s on-stage band are sensational – and deserving of the almost equal standing they get here with the performers – while Tim Shortall provides good minimal design (flashing neon sign and seedy beaded curtain) and witty costuming – I particularly liked the matching Velma-from-Scooby Doo wigs and eyewear for Grover and Steedon’s creepy couple. But this is a vacillating production of an uneven show: neither satisfying drama that delivers on its central idea of lost, lonely souls, nor fully immersive, risk-taking cabaret. It would do best to strip back the narrative, ditch or firmly satirise the sexism, crank up the zany and slapstick, and pair the hummable hits with a drink and a dancefloor.


Hartley’s lush, jazz-hot score is swing while you’re sleuthing


Editor Rating: 
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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