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Rumpy Pumpy at Theatre Royal, Windsor

Published by: Kate Braxton on 3rd Nov 2016 | View all blogs by Kate Braxton

When the Channel 4 documentary, The WI and Their Search for The Perfect Brothel aired in 2008, BBC-trained writer, Barbara Jane Mackie landed upon a charming idea for a musical comedy. Roll over jam and Jerusalem, and wet your whistle for tea and crumpets! Rumpy Pumpy was first showcased at The King’s Head in April, 2015 and is currently at planning stages to be made into a film. But this week the red light district comes to Theatre Royal, Windsor.

The story follows two genteel WI grandmothers, Jean Johnson and Shirley Landels, who take it upon themselves to campaign for the legalisation of prostitution. Despite Shirley’s ill-health, their seemingly dizzy quest transports them from Portsmouth to Amsterdam, Nevada to New Zealand, to greater inform their missionary positions.

We begin on a West Sussex roadside at night, where the worldly (theatrical) experience of RSC-turned-Eastenders actress Louise Jameson as Jean, is ably accompanied by her ‘Watson’, Tricia Deighton, who for me, gives the performance of the show as Shirley. She effortlessly plays second fiddle to strident Jean, but regularly gets the last laugh with sublimely timed one-liners and asides. They are a nimble, natural double act, whose chemistry abounds as their dedication to the cause rises above every intriguing distraction, from rubber arse midgets to the dentist's doings. (“I’m sure that man did my root canal treatment…”)

Their combined acting experience manages to carry the serious message through relentless comic scenes, which could otherwise dissolve into unintended farce. That, and the punctuating insights into the working girls’ daily hardship, uphold the true ethos of the piece beneath the saucy get-up.

Both Jameson and Deighton tend to speak-sing. A few more bars of pure written tune would give us a clearer understanding of the composer’s musical intention. However, the spirit of their partnership is so robust, and the rest of the cast offer a range of pleasingly delivered melodies, belters and titillating ditties, that it has the overall feel of a balanced offering.

In their pursuit of the perfect brothel, the ladies encounter local Madame, Holly Spencer, a role that is primed for show-business legend, Linda Nolan, to grab by the teeth and tonsils. She projects a tough-fronted, maternally protective stance over her girls, whilst watchful of the rife hypocrisy which brings Father Hugo and other society types to her back rooms. I was somewhat under-energised by the characterization of this powerful part, which included noticeable tip-toeing around the musical numbers, and the odd missed line. However, I can’t help feel that a few more runs and less dowdy costuming would help put the right kind of edge into this performance.

Rumpy Pumpy’s banter-laden comings and goings take place amid minimal staging. One plain room is built within the open space, lit red or blue to reflect the brothel or police station, with two simple flanking projected images to set the context. It doesn’t need to be any more complicated than this, as the musical score is intricate and interesting, the characters, bold and Panto-esque. The simple device of stepping out of the room to provide interim narrative keeps the story moving effectively under the direction of Stephen Greiff, and an interesting angle is given to the joy of sex when the ladies tout a mobile sex parlour around the streets of Hampshire.

There are some vibrant individual performances from the girls, in particular Sally Frith as blonde, gamine Goisa, the pole dancing Pole and Alex Roots as Holly’s daughter, searching for a ‘normal’ life with the boy next door, played with unequivocal likeability by James Charlton. Scarlet Wilderink and Liberty Buckland also inject youthful sparkle to the brothel with fresh sounding vocals and eye-catching presence.  Since most of the cast play more than one part, we are reminded of the dual lives of sex workers and punters alike, but are left with less room for empathy with the individual characters themselves.

All credit must go to the small band, whose presence feels a little too thin for some of the score’s bolder numbers. With greater conviction from the cast and a broader sound, there could be show-stopping moments rather than each song passing through and falling away, like a knocking shop conveyor belt.

Rumpy Pumpy lovingly sucks at its own sweet idea from start to finish, knowing at the centre it has all the ingredients for a fine piece of theatre. And just as Mackie intended, it succeeds at making the dark side of prostitution accessible to all. Technically, it’s not quite tight enough to produce a completely happy ending, but that’s nothing a big injection of passion and confidence in the production cannot overcome. It's all in the script.


Rumpy Pumpy runs at Theatre Royal, Windsor from Tuesday 1st - Saturday 5th November 2016

Tue - Sat 8pm

Thurs - 2.30pm

Fri & Sat - 4.45pm

Box Office: 01753 853 888






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