Rue Magique is a wonderful new musical which is written by Lisa Forrell and Brett Kahr. It’s about a young girl called Sugar who has been forced into prostitution at an early age by her mother, Desdemona, who runs a brothel in south London. It’s a rites of passage tale really, a sort of coming-of-age story, and in particular it’s a look at what happens on the day of Sugar’s thirteenth birthday. It’s a powerful, thrilling and moving story of self-realisation. People will no doubt say “why would you do a musical about prostitution?”. But that’s just the setting in which we chose to tell a human drama. We hope we’re telling a story that has a light at the end of the tunnel.

My character, Desdemona, is an incredibly powerful and formidable woman. She’s been quite something to get to grips with because she’s one of the strongest women I’ve ever had to play on stage, and I’ve played some pretty strong women in the past, like Ma Rainey in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Madam Thénardier in Les Miserables. Desdemona runs the brothel with an iron fist. The brothel is her kingdom and she swans about like the queen bee. She’s truly wonderful in her own way, even though she does these incredibly despicable things. It would be easy to hate her, but my goal is to get people to understand her, or at least just to know her. I am in no way condoning her behaviour; there are things in the script that have made me shudder and not like her at all, but my director has been so patient with me and she has always talked me through it.

One of the reasons I chose to get involved in this project is that we get to perform at the King’s Head. It’s an extraordinary theatre and an incredible place to work. You just go in there and magic happens. You can feel the magic when you’re up on that stage. We want to be able to look the audience in the eye when we tell our story - even though I won’t be doing that because I get terribly nervous!

Very early on in this project, when I was first offered the role, I went to Lisa\'s apartment which has a wonderful baby grand piano, and Brett Kahr, the composer, played me the entire score. The music was so gripping and the tunes were beautiful. I knew this project was going to be difficult; it’s a difficult story to tell. But we don’t always have to have the answers. The purpose of art is sometimes to highlight and flag up issues people might need reminding of.

Brett and Lisa have both outlined the history of this project and that was very important for me. It came out of work that has been bubbling and boiling and being created for about ten years now. Brett met with young people who had been disenfranchised or who were abandoned; children who were in prostitution or other really horrible situations. It’s heartbreaking to know that in our society, even in the face of a credit crunch and plummeting house prices, people can still afford to buy a £250,000 house and yet right beneath our noses there are these children who are being ignored.

- Melanie La Barrie was talking to Kate Jackson


Rue Magique opened on 29 October 2008 (previews from 21 October) at the King’s Head Theatre, where it continues its limited season until 7 December 2008. It has music and lyrics by Brett Kahr and is co-written by director Lisa Forrell.