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The Stripper (St James Theatre, London): Review

stripper Back in noir. Sebastien Torika as Al Wheeler in 'The Stripper'. Photograph: Courtesy of Origin8 Photography.

Sexy, sultry, and a little bit beautifully silly, The Stripper is a nipple-tassel spin-cycle of frisky fiendish fun.

A woman throws herself off a building. But did she jump, was she pushed, or did she fall? In 1960s Pine City, in southern California, the air is thick with vice, and womanising Detective Al Wheeler might have the key to the unfortunate lady’s demise: her cousin, a stripper. Can he uncover a deadly underworld that’s thriving beneath his feet? In The Stripper, he might just be able to, providing he keeps him brains firmly inside his trousers!

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Noah’s Arkwright. Michael Steedon as Jacob Arkwright in ‘The Stripper’. Photograph: Courtesy of Origin8 Photography.

Book

The Rocky Horror Show is a sensation: no doubt about that. But the problem is that too many people expect another The Rocky Horror Show with everything that Richard O’Brien has done since. Even the direct sequel to The Rocky Horror Show, Shock Treatment, is often criticised for not being able to recapture that zing that made The Rocky Horror Show sing. So what happened next? Well, in the early 1980s, Richard O’Brien teamed up with murder mystery writer Carter Brown (aka Alan Geoffrey Yates) to create The Stripper. 30 years on, and it’s finally starting to take off (pun intended), but it’s not quite what you’d expect from a Richard O’Brien project.

Brown’s narrative is actually quite an intricate and genuinely enigmatic murder mystery piece, although simultaneously poking fun at the film noir genre. But none the less, Brown’s mystery is not so thick and convoluted that it becomes too difficult to keep up, but neither is it so simple or obvious that you’ve got it all nicely packaged and solved before the protagonist does, meaning you’re invested and intrigued as to where the story goes. Furthermore, Carter’s infamy for steaming vice is still present here. The stripper that “says it all from the neck down”, and the feisty Mexican secretary, add hot-under-the-collar licks of the erotic but also narrative complexity. Even these saucy seductresses are more than meets the eye, showing that The Stripper’s sexuality isn’t merely gratuitous and is actually key to developing the complexity of the detail that makes this mystery so engrossing. This extends to the seemingly caricature characters; these also harbour deeper veins of enigma that they let on. In short, The Stripper is actually a very well constructed murder mystery, including its comic kookiness and steamy sexiness.

The only issue with The Stripper is that it doesn’t quite know whether it’s trying to be a sultry noir thriller or goofball spoof. The result is that The Stripper often rocks back and forth between the two. It doesn’t make it terrible, just makes the pacing a little uneven and neurotic.

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High-end thrills. Sebastien Torkia (left) and Gloria Onitiri (right). Photograph: Courtesy of David Freeman.

Music and Lyrics

Richard Hartley and O’Brien return as music and lyricist duo, after their partnership on Shock Treatment. As expected, the score is unapologetic and cheeky with a brisk and swaggering verve. Whilst O’Brien is probably not the most high-brow of lyricists, he still manages to weave in plenty of sharp little zingers and unexpected little intelligences that are evenly mixed with end-of-the-pier tongue in cheek . Hartley’s contribution is often high octane and fun, but also does slow, seductive and soulful quite well too. The score is possibly the only thing in The Stripper that links it to Brad and Janet’s misadventures, at points conjuring the same rock ‘n’ roll character as The Stripper’s predecessors. Otherwise, The Stripper is a very different beast from the Frankenstein place or Denton, USA, both musically and narratively.

The score isn’t perfect though. Hartley can’t seem to pick a decade and musical styles range from the 1940s to the 1970s, throwing the epoch of The Stripper quite out of place at times. Like the book, it also can’t seem to settle for a comic or gritty tone, and some deep and soul-bearing ballads are juxtaposed by lively oddball numbers. Then, there are some numbers that are clearly remnant of The Stripper’s long evolution. Act I closer “Man of Steel” feels completely out of place, being an almost literal “rock out with your cock out” number where Detective Al Wheeler sings repeatedly and ecclesiastically about his erect genitalia. You can imagine it in something uninhibited and wild like The Rocky Horror Show but it sticks out like a sore….erm…thumb in something that has since become a lot more measured and atmospheric.

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Dodgy reception(ist). Hannah Grover as Annabelle in ‘The Stripper’. Photograph: Courtesy of Origin8 Photography.

Direction & Production

The St James lounge space is a great place for cabarets and small scale shows, so it was always going to be interesting to see how a larger-than-life musical was going to slot in here. Thankfully, Scala Theatre’s production finds a way and does it very well. Tim Shorthall’s set design doesn’t care about the shallow depth of the stage and makes great use of the height, building a grand and shimmering wall with neon letters and swanky glittering fabrics, with a ledge for actors to pop in and out of from behind a seedy beady curtain. It looks impressive and imposing and reeks of a chintzy grubby chic that is literally smoking and is perfect for the cast and other creatives to work their magic upon.

High praise must be given to movement director Lucie Pankhurst who dazzles with absolutely stunning choreography. You might think that there’s little room for all singing and danging West-end pizzazz, but Pankhurst finds miraculous space for high kicks, dizzying turns, and other acrobatics on the slither of stage that The Stripper is given to work with. If economic policy were more like Pankhurst’s choreography, then we’d be high and dry by summoning something phenomenal from exceedingly little.

Benji Sperring returns to direct this Hartley and O’Brien affair after the success of Shock Treatment at the King’s Head under his helm. It’s an incredibly shrewd choice because Sperring demonstrated that his eye for the cheekily twisted, and a resonance with the knowing little jokes, is exactly the kind of mindframe and kink that is needed to really make The Stripper shimmer. Sperring keeps the octane high and the laughs coming, but most importantly irons out as much as possible the inconsistencies between the comic and the brooding pacing, keeping the former not too zany and the latter snappier and lighter, bringing a real sense of cohesion to The Stripper.

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Delores galore! Gloria Onitiri as Deadpan Delores in ‘The Stripper’. Photograph: Courtesy of Origin8 Photography.

Cast

It was a big surprise at the curtain call to find that there are only five actors in The Stripper, despite there being twelve characters (I suppose I should have studied my programme a little more before curtain up): the ensemble are all brilliant character actors who give every personality they get behind a fantastic distinction from the last. Furthermore, they’re a tight company who really bounce energy and fun off of each other. Hannah Glover and Michael Steedon have a brilliantly tense sense of American Gothic going on as Mr and Mrs Arkwright, then Steedon and Marc Pickering are formidable, if not laughably dunderheaded, criminal duo.

Stand out performances come from Sebastien Torika as Al Wheeler, who very quietly sends up the long-suffering noir detective veneer with effortlessly breaking of the fourth-wall and toying with the audience. He also gets behind his character’s equally seedy and sleuthy libido, building a sense of uninhibited naughtiness that’s just enormous fun to get behind (oh my).

Gloria Onitiri is simply fabulous as the titular stripper, Deadpan Delores Keller. She is sheer sex in a chiffon negligee, with a powerful and rich voice that is as nut-bustingly astonishing as her stage allure. Onitiri’s poise and presence just soaks the stage in seduction and is ravishing to watch and listen to, and she’s been perfectly cast as the powerful vixen and fly-in-the-ointment here. If Onitiri is not already on your radar, mark her now before she turns up the heat on a fantastic all-round talent.

Verdict

Set your nipple tassels to thrill in this show bursting with rampant fun. The Stripper will charm your G-String off.

The Stripper plays at the St. James Theatre, London, SW1E 5JA, until 13 August 2016. Tickets are £20 – £35. To book, visit www.stjamestheatre.co.uk.