Why not make a musical about prostitutes? No, it’s not something that has ever occurred to me either, but luckily for us, it did occur to Brett Kahr and Lisa Forrell, whose music and lyrics and book respectively combine to create new musical Rue Magique, a challenging and emotional journey into a dark and desolate world of teenage prostitution and personal demons.
The action takes place in a grim and rather lack-lustre brothel, sensitively underdesigned by Polly Sullivan, which is ruled over with an iron fist by Desdemona, the Madame of the house and the mother of Sugar, who is forced to celebrate her thirteenth birthday by moving to ‘level 2’ with her less than appealing clients. It is not a prospect that she relishes and is complicated further by her friendship with a local young shopkeeper who is determined to show her that there is in fact ‘another kind of kiss’.
Unlikely fodder for a musical at first glance, but the hearty storyline is full of possibilities, passion and occasionally, well timed humour. In order to rein the gritty plot into a workable musical, Forrell, who also directs, has given way to a touch of the ‘after school special’, and there are times where the reality of what is happening feels all too glossed over and sanitised, but there are also moments of palpable danger, exaggerated by the pushing intimacy of The King’s Head’s cosy performance space.
Melanie LaBarrie puts in a stunning performance as the fierce brothel owner, tortured by her own failings and unforgiving of others’, while Nadia Di Mambro excels as the teenage girl desperate to find strength and comfort in a bleak and uncaring world. Her voice is a revelation, which sadly isn’t as true for Terel Nugent, who fails to find enough power as Rem, the sensitive love interest with a protective streak.
The musical is based on work that has been in development for several years, and Kahr himself has had contact with a number of young people in desperate situations, which may explain just how it is that so much heart and soul are squeezed into this pulsating piece. It may be a little tinny in places, and the love story may feel a little contrived, but the music is beautiful, the acting is strong, and Rue Magique happily proves that there is another kind of musical.