Rue Magique @ King’s Head Theatre, London

cast list
Gavin Ashbarry
Adam Bayjou
Nadia di Mambro
Julian Forsyth
Melanie la Barrie
Amanda Minihan
Terel Nugent
Amanda Posenor
Anna Stolli

directed by
Lisa Forrell
Based on a true story, Brett Kahr’s Rue Magique tells the tale of Desdemona, a woman who runs a brothel in south London and tries to push her 13-year old daughter into prostitution – in the form of a musical.

In portraying a world where people are struggling to survive, it has much in common with Cabaret demonstrating that musicals can explore the most serious of subject matters.

And yet, while the show evokes Cabaret, it would be a mistake to imply it was in the same league. Having said that, although this was a quite flawed production, the occasions where it did work well are enough to make one feel that this show has real potential.

Desdemona runs her brothel as a way of ensuring a safe environment for everyone involved with it. If this seems ironic, it is such ironies that make the piece such a multi-layered affair.

Remembering how she was once prostituted in dirty, unsafe surroundings, Desdemona gives the inhabitants a relatively good deal in ensuring the house is always clean and secure. But she has also grown high on her ability to exert power in the house, and this sees her forcing her daughter, Sugar, into prostitution (supposedly to keep her protected) as opposed to letting her lead her own life with her boyfriend.

The fact that there’s a lot wrong with this show is inescapable. The music is sometimes uninspiring and the lyrics often lack subtlety. The happy ending also makes the piece seem at odds with its intention to portray the world that exists beneath the radar of police and social services. Watching this generally uplifting, and frequently funny, musical in north London theatre, I sometimes felt a world rather than just an underground ride away from the setting that it was portraying.

But the production was aided by several things, not least a competent cast. Nadia di Mambro as Sugar showed great maturity in her acting, demonstrating vulnerability, a kind heart, a desire to be loved, and an amazing capacity to wonder. The image of her lying with a pimp ready to take her, whilst still singing of the perfect birthday she could picture in her mind, was particularly powerful.

Terel Nugent (from the original cast of Hairspray) had one of the stronger voices as Sugars would-be boyfriend, Rem, whilst Melanie la Barrie captured the full range of ambiguities in Desdemonas character. Julian Forsyth was also effective as the down-and-out, Cardboard, showing great kindness towards Sugar, whilst encouraging her not to stick around such an unreliable figure as himself.

But it was two songs in particular that won me over. The Vipers Tale, in which three pimps sang of how they had ended up as such, possessed brilliant lyrics, and, sung and danced to a high standard, was the comedy highlight of the evening – though not without sinister undertones. At the other end of the emotional spectrum, Desdemonas Mothers Song, in which she finally revealed everything about herself, was intensely moving. With la Barrie shaking convincingly as she lamented how no-one had ever understood her; she appeared physically different from the scenes where she was queen in her own house.

It might have helped if more of the characters had been explored in detail, so that we got to grips further with the tragedies of both the pimps and the good natured down-and-outs.

But, in its present form, the quality of music and lyrics is just too variable, too inconsistent. Those two songs, The Vipers Tale and The Mothers Song, demonstrated real inventiveness; it’s just a shame the rest of the material fell short of this standard.

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