There’s a double translation involved with the new musical based on one of Carter Brown’s stories featuring the American detective Al Wheeler. Making a play out of a novel is one thing, and not easy. Making it into a modern musical is even more complex. The opportunities to fail are multiplied.
The Stripper is set in California in the early 1960s. It’s a place where dolls dream of Hollywood and guys dream (some of the time) about dolls. Lieutenant Wheeler (Jonathan Wrather) is landed with the case of a self-defenestrated would-be actress who just happens (as the post mortem reveals) to have been drugged.
Investigations lead him to Deadpan Dolores(Emma-Jayne Appleyard), the night-club star of the show’s title. Thence to the Arkwright dating agency and on to a somewhat unusual florist’s shop. The plot thickens, the scenes change, the songs multiply – yet somehow it never properly takes off. It’s a skit on the skids.
That’s not the fault of the look of the thing. Designer Rodney Ford has devised a multiple location set that includes buildings built from pulp novel books. Director Bob Carlton, artistic director of the Hornchurch Queen’s Theatre where the musical premieres, keeps his cast on the move and in character. Richard O’Brien’s words are well served by Richard Hartley’s music, though there isn’t really a show-stopper and some of the lyrics try too hard to be raunchy.
An extremely good performance is given by Appleyard, lithe-limbed and smokey-voiced. You can believe in the carapace she’s grown in self-defence as well as in her acceptance of love (or lust) as it comes. She’s matched by Jack Edwards, deservedly awarded the loudest applause at the first-night performance for his “Hearts and flowers” ballad. His over-blown Harvey Stern is a characterisation to savour.
Two women who somehow are faded out instead of developed (it’s a bit like all those decorative James Bond girls who are so easily dispensed with) are Sarah Redmond as Annabelle, the police chief’s secretary, and Siubhan Harrison as Sherry, the dating agency receptionist. The Arkwrights themselves are Gay Soper as the domineering wife (she’s given a second-act number for no very good reason) and O’Brien as the more subdued husband.
Wrather has a reasonably good attempt at Wheeler, looking the slightly scruffy. elipitcally-thinking cop so familiar from black-and-white detective films very well, but appearing slightly embarrassed by it all and lacking the charisma which would make this role properly pivotal. The last scene at Club Extravaganza is, frankly, a bit of a mess – and that’s discounting the corpses on stage; more than at the end of a Jacobean revenge tragedy.
It could be worse. It certainly could be much better. The production values are spot-on, there are at least two noteworthy performances and the band under Barry Robinson, tucked away on an upper stage level, produces a coherent sound which never drowns the vocalists. But overall, it’s just not good enough. Yet.