Rumpy Pumpy is a new musical based on the events of the 2008 Channel 4 documentary A WI Lady’s Guide to Brothels. Jean Johnson and Shirley Landells, two ‘ladies from the shires’ campaign for the decriminalisation of brothels in the UK, and are flown by Renegade Pictures to Amsterdam, Nevada and New Zealand in search of ‘the perfect brothel’ , for which they will then advocate.
Barbara Jane Mackie picked up this story and with Jean and Shirley’s support (before Shirley died later in 2008) went on to research in a brothel in the north of England, finding it clean, health and safety checked, and VAT-registered, with the local police amongst their regular clients. Mackie combines the Hampshire WI Ladies’ quest with fictionalised stories from such a brothel, the Blue Saloon, run by madam Holly (Mandi Symonds), who is under threat of closure by the dogged DC Hecks (Joanne Sandi).
The production feels under-rehearsed but there are some great voices in the cast, from Sandi, Symonds and Deborah Poplett. The action moves quickly along, and the songs (composed by Mackie, along with the book and lyrics) don’t overstay their welcome. Some are really strong, especially Act II’s ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice (If Things Were Legal)’ and ‘Life at the end of the Rope’. Unfortunately, those which have lyrical or musical failings considerably outnumber them. Jean and Shirley’s ‘The Perfect Brothel’ (reprised three times during the show) has a tune that is highly reminiscent of Monty Python’s ‘The Lumberjack Song’ and ‘Automatic’, which critiques the plasticised sexuality of a Nevada ‘bunny ranch’, lacks the tension between music and lyrics that could rank it next to Sweet Charity’s ‘Hey, Big Spender’.
But the real problem is that the songs, those moments of focus and wrangling in a musical’s make-up, often reveal Rumpy Pumpy’s desire to stay on the sex-toy strewn surface, and not dive into the massive question that prostitution and the law throws up. It’s one of the most divisive issues amongst feminists, and at every turn Rumpy Pumpy puts the nice blokes onstage instead of the wife-beaters, the bizarre puritan DC Hecks who calls Holly ‘antichrist’ and ‘infidel’ instead of dramatizing a structural disregard amongst police for the lives of prostitutes, and the Women’s Institute instead of the English Collective of Prostitutes (who are now working with Jean to continue her campaign, whereas the national Women’s Institute ultimately rejected the decriminalisation campaign). The title song’s lyrics – “Rumpy Pumpy Pumpy Pumpy Pumpy / What on earth is wrong with that? / Rumpy Pumpy Pumpy Pumpy Pumpy Pumpy / It even stops you getting fat” – see the show focussing on Calendar Girls-style juxtaposition of the WI and sexual innuendo rather than engaging with the dilemmas the issues demand.
So although there are interesting ideas – the S.O.O.B.s (Self Owner Operated Brothels) that Jean and Shirley encounter in NZ are anathema to Holly’s living as a madam – and small moments of brilliance – Jean’s response to being told that the National Federation of Women’s Institutes have voted down her resolution… in favour of bees – Rumpy Pumpy struggles to escape its roots as a sensationalist documentary, trading on the fun to be had watching two grandmothers swapping tea and crumpets for red lights and condoms. The musical will need a real investigation of privilege (both when looking at the WI ladies, and those sex workers that think of themselves as empowered by their work) as well as a focus on the deeper arguments raised by decriminalisation to make this brothel structurally sound, let alone perfect.