★★ | The Stripper, St. James Theatre
Ever heard of the biographical fallacy? No, it’s not a handy, dictaphone dildo, but a warning to never, ever judge an author’s work by his life. See, back in the 19th Century, critics actually believed in pure, spun-from-thin-air fantasy, that plays and novels came from sheer imagination, not hard, lived experience.
Oh really? Tell that to gay, smack addict and novelistic genius William Burroughs, whose entire output mirrored his self-chosen squalor. And he’s merely the tip of a non-stop, thinly-fictionalised iceberg – every second, every minute, we’re swamped by tsunamis of blogs, memoirs and blatant self-mythologizing.
So unsurprisingly, critical theory’s undergone a complete reversal, and currently, all creative writing is viewed as ultimately flowing from biographical facts. Oh dear. That’s very bad news for Rocky Horror creator Richard O’ Brien’s latest show The Stripper, which once again showcases his low-brow, pop-culture fixations. It’s a heavy-handed, sleazy, musical theatre adaptation of a disposable, pulp-fiction, private-eye novel by hack Carter Brown, and as dire as it sounds.
Me, I pity the show’s outstanding actors. Despite being crippled by O’Brien’s clueless, misogynistic lyrics, an uninspired score and lazily generic stage design and costuming, they often touch real brilliance. In particular, Gloria Onitiri’s lead stripper Dolores has the raw, diva heat of a young Grace Jones, while Sebastian Torkia’s private eye Wheeler is magnificently moody. More quirkily, Hannah Grover, Michael Steedon and Marc Pickering all triple-up to flesh out The Stripper’s seedy, eccentric cast. Sadly, they inhabit a world of laughably clunky exposition, with composer Richard Hartley’s score merely a serviceable, degraded blizzard of inept doo-wop and leaden jazz.
Immediately, it’s obvious that nothing but instant closure can rescue this glacially-paced, Z-grade murder mystery.
Yes, every possible cliché is alive and unfeasibly surviving here. There are one-note tough guys, vapid femme fatales and even – shades of Rocky Horror’s Riff-raff – a two-timing hunchback.
Speaking charitably, it’s more Roger Rabbit than Jason Bourne. My god – didn’t it even occur to O’Brien that Carter Brown was parodying hard-boiled prose and attitudes? How could it? Peel away all the frothy, feel-good kitsch from Rocky Horror onwards and what’s left are O’Brien’s deeply unpleasant, highly reactionary, sexual politics.
Frankly, nothing else explains such shockingly offensive lyrics as ‘I wanna fondle your tits/Baby you give me a hard-on’. There’s a simply appalling sub-text here – f*ck whoever possible and totally abuse their feelings – a textbook, sexual predator sense of intimate entitlement and presumed consent. Sure, as a songwriter, O’Brien is hardly Noel Coward or Cole Porter, but surely he’s capable of finer artistry than this abysmal, teenage smut? Honestly, do audiences really need such insensitivity casually inflicted on them in 2016?
And even more disturbingly, O’Brien’s lyrics don’t even attempt irony – the object of their lust is meant to feel privileged! Gee, whatever happened to any notions or awareness of sexual dignity, humanity or compassion here? Heartless but superficially attractive, The Stripper is a coldly cynical exercise in period sleaze, but ultimately, one best left unattended in a forgotten, theatrical morgue.
The Stripper run at the St. James Theatre Studio until 13th August
Reviewed by Trixabelle del Mar