"You've got trouble" sings the closing song of Richard Hartley, Richard O'Brien and Carter Brown's 1985 musical The Stripper, revived at the St James Studio. Instead of being River City and the presence of a pool table, we're in Pine City, slightly further West and some fifty years later where there's a murder mystery to be solved and a string of potential culprits. To comment much on the plot would perhaps give too much away, and whilst it's hardly a mystery of Agatha Christie proportions, there is merit in letting the madness surprise and occasionally deliver.
In the introduction to the programme the venue speaks of its desire to find an 'immersive' book musical to bed-down for a longer run at the cramped and difficult to manoeuvre St James Studio, and whilst on paper The Stripper may well evoke the smoky club-like environment, it doesn't work in practical terms. Seated on the second row of the gallery level I can safely report that I missed around 40% of the action, including a couple of full numbers (something about a bed, which admittedly the downstairs audience were laughing at), which rather than feel 'immersive' instead felt exclusive to those seated around the cabaret tables front and centre. Whilst I'm not one to usually complain about seating, it seems perverse to invite reviewers and place them in the worst sight-lines in the venue, making the whole event a lot more trouble to watch than it sadly was worth.
Whilst I may not have been able to always see the action, thankfully the sound design meant I could sit back and enjoy the powerful vocals of the five strong cast who together play a variety of colourful characters each as distinct and ridiculous as the next. Stylistically the production aims for the sleek sophistication of City of Angels, complete with the womanizing investigator who consistently (and taxingly) breaks the fourth wall to narrate and keep track of proceedings, but the farcical elements and broad stroke humour that occasionally outstays it's welcome confirms its place as pulp fiction. The production's biggest strength is its daring and committed cast, featuring outstanding vocals by Hannah Grover and Gloria Onitiri and shape-shifting comedy from Marc Pickering. Whilst there's sometimes inconsistency in tone, together they help patch over the material's shortcomings and provide a set of memorable performances.
The score, which features lyrics by The Rocky Horror Show's Richard O'Brien and music by Richard Hartley, is hit and miss with the expected levels of musical theatre and cultural pastiche - the Spanish number includes vamps of "The Girl from Ipanema", and one number was an almost melodic rip off of "Maybe This Time" - you get the picture. Still, the energetic and evocative band led by Musical Director Alex Beetschen create the appropriate atmosphere and display sympathetic undertones to the voices, which bizarrely work better in isolation rather than in unison.
This murder mystery keeps its tongue firmly pushed against its cheek, and in its best moments resembles the chaotic magnificence of 'Twin Peaks', and at its worst, namely its denouement, feels like an episode of 'Scooby Doo'. In fact by that stage the unmasking accompanying evil laugh wouldn't have felt wholly out of place.
What should have been an easy and enjoyable watch was made taxing by the venue and the seating. With themed cocktails and characters frisking you upon entry, it's clear more thought has gone into the overall style of the production than the substance, and despite one incredibly authentic delivery of the title's promise, the 'immersive' aspect didn't work, making for a fun yet slightly disappointing evening.
What the Press Said...
"It’s more film phwoar and frankly it’s so uneven that if it were a pavement, I’d sue."
Ann Treneman for The Times
"A sex-obsessed cop chases an investigation all the way to a burlesque dive in a preposterous, nastily misogynistic show that quickly runs out of steam."
Lyn Gardner for The Guardian
"A disheartening evening of wearying misogyny."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard
External links to full reviews from popular press