Rumpy Pumpy! continues at the Union Theatre, London until 19 November.
Star rating: one star ★ ✩ ✩ ✩ ✩
The real-life story of two ladies from the Women’s Institute who campaigned for rights and improved conditions for sex workers – and the decriminalisation of prostitution, no less – sounds like it should be the ideal source material for a stage musical. You can imagine a heady, saucy mash-up of Calendar Girls, Saving Grace and Mrs Henderson Presents, with the delightful juxtaposition of twee WI grandmothers, brothel madams and the working girls of Hampshire, where the drama principally unfolded.
I’m sad to say that Rumpy Pumpy! fails to deliver on this promise in almost every conceivable way.
I’m disappointed because as well as the kernel of a wonderful show, there are some spirited performances in Barbara Jane Mackie’s musical. As the WI’s Jean Johnson, the RADA-trained and RSC-matured Louise Jameson does her very best with the leaden – and toothless and unfunny – script and lacklustre songs, but even her believable portrayal of the determined modern-day suffragette can’t save the show.
Linda Nolan equally gives it her best shot as Madame Holly Spencer, but it’s not enough. Tricia Deighton as Jean’s best friend and co-campaigner Shirley Landels at least provides some much-needed moments of comic relief.
The rest of the cast – Claudia Cadette, Sally Frith, Basienka Blake, Liberty Buckland, Scarlet Wilderink and Alex Roots, plus the two guys Craig Armstrong and James Charlton playing all of the male characters – gamely sing and dance their way through the two acts, but one gets the feeling they’re also acutely aware of the failings in the book and songs. Director Simon Greiff does what he can with the limited set, but isn’t left many options.
This is not a show that is ready yet for the stage, and personally I’m not convinced it’s salvageable.
The songs are infantile – the title song, for example, literally goes: “Rumpy pumpy pumpy pumpy pumpy”, insulting the audience’s intelligence – and, as presented at the Union, unmic’d and often drowned out by the otherwise competent MD Paul Smith on the piano.
The gossamer-thin book, while based on true events (as shown in the Channel 4 documentary A WI Lady’s Guide to Brothels), is also sorely lacking, and goes off the rails towards the end, particularly in relation to the character of DC Hecks, a puritanical zealot who is unmasked as a lesbian and as a result somehow loses her job. The thought-provoking and sometimes heartbreaking tales at the core of this story deserve a much stronger and more respectful treatment.
It is ever the intention of Musical Theatre Review to support and encourage new writing for the stage, and I hate having to award just one star. But I personally could not endorse or recommend this show to anyone with an interest in serious attempts at comedy drama. Not my cup of tea.