The St. James Studio is better known for one-night only performances, playing host to jazz evenings, Broadway/West End stars and cabaret acts presenting new material or paying homage to the greats of yesteryear. In the dimly lit basement one can imagine sitting around a table for two, sipping martinis in a pinstripe suit and puffing on a cigarillo. The space lends itself aptly to the slightly seedy undertones of The Stripper, a little-heard of musical with lyrics created by Richard O’Brien in between his Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Crystal Maze days. With Benji Sperring’s staging, gone are the candlelit tables in favour of rows of chairs to maximise audience uptake for a production that promises audience interaction, but delivers a certain amount of irritation instead. To a viewing public largely comprised of Richard O’Brien fans decked out in themed attire, the cast of five deliver a tongue in cheek pastiche of this whodunnit murder mystery with a raunchy twist.
One thing that the St. James Theatre Artistic Director James Albrecht is known for delivering on is high quality singers. Whether they be raspy jazz tones or jazz-hands Broadway stars, the vocal performance is always held in the highest regard. This holds true with these five cast members. With a jazz-inspired live band under Alex Beetschen’s leadership, the cast professionally, and with apparent ease, rattle through a smorgasbord of musical styles. There are clear parallels to be drawn with O’Brien and Hartley’s other productions (The Rocky Horror Show and Shock Treatment, which Sperring directed at The King’s Head Theatre in 2015) – overly sexualised innuendo, a flagrant disregard for the fourth wall and an over the top set of leading characters, to name but a few. Yet the songs also lend themselves to the venue and allow the cast to show off their capabilities, none more so than Gloria Onitiri.
From soulful and introspective to powerful alto vibrato, Onitiri’s voice is all age and experience despite her youthful appearance. Songs such as ‘The Lonely Are Legend’ accentuate the character’s intelligent apathy and disdain for society until detective Al Wheeler (Sebastien Torkia) comes along. Her swan song has punch and control, whilst ‘Planning My Big Exit’ demands the rapturous applause it receives. In contrast, but receiving no less an enthusiastic reception, is ‘Hearts and Flowers’, a rather sickly yet also psychotic plea from Marc Pickering’s Harvey Stern to convince the detective that he is not involved in the investigation at hand. Pickering has the audience on his side with a weedy caricature that is meant to be despised, but is affable enough to be pitied.
The number of stereotypes in this production ultimately detracts from its appeal, but then again it is crime drama-cum-film noir. Torkia’s unexpected antihero is brooding and flawed, unable to resist the charms of strippers and madams alike. Standing in the spotlight (literally), Torkia looks at ease delivering quips and one-liners but misses the opportunity to add a new dimension to the uncomfortable renegade brought into line with the law. His reluctant passion is countered by Hannah Grover’s Sherry Mendes, fiery and forward.
Despite its successes in casting and concept, The Stripper doesn’t deliver the impact of Hartley and O’Brien’s other cult offerings. It is made up of similar elements, but the whole is not greater than its parts. If anything, the production is understated, not intimate enough for the small stage of the St. James Studio but equally incapable of expanding to a larger stage in its current state.
The Stripper is on until 13th August 2016. Click here for more information.