With some good performances and heart warming moments, Rumpy Pumpy is a show that holds a wealth of promise. At its heart is an extraordinary true-life story.
Rumpy Pumpy is a new musical by Barbara Jane Mackie inspired by the real life story of two ladies from the Women’s Institute who rally to find a safer environment for “working girls”. The musical was showcased as part of the New Playwrights season at the Kings Head Theatre in 2015 and has now opened its premier season at the Union Theatre.
In 2015, a review in The Stage had this to say:
The seeds of an exceptionally good story are present in this nugget of W.I. history, ripe with the eccentricities and enterprise that made ‘Calendar Girls’ such an engaging piece. A fascinating story, ripe with possibilities.
Rumpy Pumpy has also been tagged as a female The Full Monty. Others could be added as comparators like Kinky Boots and, at a stretch, Billy Elliot. It’s true that there are traces of common elements – earthy humour and ordinary folk working together to overcome diversity.
Unfortunately the seeds planted in 2015, however promising, have not yet reached harvest. The narrative moves at a fast pace but all too often the characters are speaking in clichés and struggling to achieve anything more than two dimensional depth.
Similarly, the music falls short of impressing. There is a plethora of short snappy songs sung mostly in unison to the accompaniment of a single, simple keyboard. Albeit a humble instrument, it is played with much dexterity by Musical Director Paul Smith. There is listed in the program a credit for more musicians, a drummer and a bassist, but they were curiously missing in the theatre. Additional instruments would have provided a fuller sound and certainly the rhythmic support of the drums would have lifted the sound immensely.
The set functions well to suit the multiple scenes mostly due to the panels on either side of the stage which are used for projections. Location is thus established surely and quickly. It’s a nice touch to have the customers of the brothel on security cam as they come to the door. Gregory Donnelly designed both set and costumes. Like the dialogue and the songs, the costumes are a cliché. In the brothel scenes, the colourful satins and laces are at odds with the clinical look of the brothel waiting room.
The cast is a mixture of known faces and emerging artists. Linda Nolan began her career as a pop star and has an impressive list of credits spanning stage and screen. Nolan plays the role of Holly Spencer, the madam of the brothel targeted for change by the WI ladies and for closure by local police vigilante, DC Hecks. Nolan is feisty in her role and portrays well the resilience and heart of gold of Holly.
One of the musical highlights of the show is Holly’s duet in the second act with her right hand lady, Mags, played by Claudia Cadette. Life at the End of A Rope has some lovely harmony and the two actors perform it with charm and sincerity.
Louise Jameson is the second of the seasoned performers in the cast. She plays the WI woman, Jean Johnson, the mover and shaker of the work with the prostitutes. Jameson is obviously a fine actor but here struggles to build a plausible character given the material with which she has to work.
Johnson takes her friend Shirley Landels, played by Tricia Deighton – a tour de force in her own right – around the world in search of the perfect brothel. Deighton injects a good deal of humour into the show and sparkles with energy. Together the ladies of the WI present a classic comedy duo of straight man and side kick with the side kick seeming to have all the fun.
The role of avenging DC Hecks is unsympathetic in its nature but Basienka Blake gives a credible performance and provides a suitable climax in the brothel scenes.
Four young women fill out the remainder of the women’s roles including the all-important working girls. They sing and dance their way through numerous solos and group numbers in a parade of sexy work clothes, and stunning shoes, with panache and artistry. They change accents and hairstyles as required but their characters are so alike it is sometimes difficult to tell them apart.
Scarlet Wilderink contributes well to the show and first appears as a police officer moonlighting at the brothel and then later as Celia. Sally Frith enters as Goisa, a prostitute working to support her alcoholic brother, and later shines as Texas Tilley with some great singing and fabulous flexibility. She is followed by Liberty Buckland as Carol, the law student earning her way through her education. Buckland features her polished singing in a number of solo spots.
The fourth young lady is Alex Roots as Sandi, the daughter of Holly. Roots is charming and sings a lovely solo, A Girl Like Me, later reprised in a duet with her love interest played by James Charlton. There is a nice rapport between the two.
Lastly, Craig Armstrong is listed as playing Father Jerry and Hank but is called on often to play small male roles. One of these is a comic spot involving a customer suffering from ‘running dermatitis’. He’s a warm, versatile actor and plays each of his roles with definition and skill.
Rumpy Pumpy is a show that holds a wealth of promise with its roots in such an extraordinary true-life story. It’s potential is there in this production but there is much dramaturgical development craving to be done.