REVIEW: THE STRIPPER (St James Studio) ★★★★

thumbnail_The_Stripper_Sebastien Torkia as Al Wheeler, Marc Pickering as Harvey Stern, Hannah Grover and Michael Steedon as chrous_David Freema

Based on the Carter Brown pulp fiction novel of the same name, Rocky Horror Show creator Richard O’Brien’s musical The Stripper was originally produced by Sydney Theatre Company in 1982. Using much of the original Rocky creative team, Richard O’Brien wrote lyrics, Richard Hartley wrote and arranged the score while Brian Thompson designed and directed the production. A vinyl cast recording of the original Sydney Theatre company was produced (starring John Paramor, Brad Majors from the 1974 Australian Cast of The Rocky Horror Show) and has since become extremely rare. I was lucky enough to come across a copy of the original LP as a teenager at a New Zealand charity shop. With a tagline “The strawberry blonde did a real H-O-T strip… until a corpse chilled the show”, songs such as ‘There’s Many A True Word Said In Bed’ and lyrics “Baby you give me a hard-on…”, in The Stripper; little teenage dreams were made and I grew up listening to the kooky, catchy songs wishing I could see a production of my new favourite show. Some seventeen years later, I’m now living in London and feel incredibly lucky to be able to review Scala Theatre Ltd’s production at The St. James Theatre and finally see The Stripper onstage.

Set in 1961, Pine City The Stripper opens to reveal ‘Patty Keller’ threatening to jump off of a fifteen story high hotel as Lieutenant ‘Al Wheeler’ attempts to talk her down. When the peace talks fail and ‘Patty’ meets her untimely end, ‘Al’ investigates the now decided homicide meeting some intriguing characters along the way. ‘Deadpan Dolores’, ‘Patty’s’ cousin and stripper, who “says it all from the neck down”. ‘Dolores’ tells ‘Al’ that ‘Patty’ belonged to a lonely hearts club and ‘Al’ soon discovers ‘Patty’s’ last date was with a man called ‘Harvey Stern’, a florist. As the clues start to unravel, and the coincidences pile up, time has come for a final showdown… and the truth. Who killed Patty Keller?

A small cast of five perform in The Stripper. Sebastian Torkia leads as Lieutenant ‘Al Wheeler’, while Marc Pickering, Hannah Glover and Michael Steedon perform many roles and Gloria Onitiri tackles dual roles of ‘Dolores Keller’ and ‘Patty Keller’. Torkia’s strong portrayal of ‘Al Wheeler’ led the performance, interacting with the audience and propelling plot with Cater Brown’s stylised pulp fiction narrative. Marc Pickering wonderfully performed his characters from seemingly nervous florist ‘Harvey Stern’, Russian club owner ‘Miles Rovak’ to politically charged ‘Sherrif Lavers’. Pickering’s characters were concise, well rounded and expertly performed making his presence onstage always a joy. Hannah Grover played domineering lonely hearts club owner ‘Sarah Arkwritght’, southern belle assistant to the Lieutenant ‘Annabelle’ and Latin American ‘Sherry Mendez’. Grover took the stage in showstopping fashion, bringing the house down with her renditions of ‘Men Like That…’ and ‘In The Night All Cats Are Brown’. Michael Steedon played battered Husband to Grover’s ‘Sarah’ ‘Jacob Arkwrigt’, rough and ready ‘Steve Loomas’ and coroner ‘Doc Murphy’ playing each with precision and finesse.

What’s interesting about Rocky Horror, Shock Treatment and The Stripper is O’Brien and Hartley’s adoration of women. From Rocky’s ‘Touch Me’ to Shock Treatment’s ‘Me of Me’ it’s evident that both writers adore women and this shows again in the scoring of songs written for ‘Dolores’. Gloria Onitiri’s portrayal of ‘Dolores’ was perfection. Every song she sang, her beautiful voice and Billie Holiday-esque performance stole the show and the audience couldn’t take their eyes off her. Onitiri epitomised the strength and pride of feminism, a theme evidently running through all three O’Brien and Hartley’s musicals with tragically beautiful effect.

Not every seat in a theatre is going to have the same view. Some theatres offer restricted view seats at reduced prices, which can be invaluable to theatre students or families who find it hard to pay full price tickets for their whole family. When you purchase a restricted view seat, you know you may have to peer over a railing or sit in an awkward position to get a good view. At St James’s Studio, the small venue means that every seat is a good seat… or so I thought. St James’s Studio is a small venue with an in-house bar. I’ve been to see numerous concerts and concept productions in the space and it’s the perfect venue for these type of shows. The Stripper is staged as a full-scale musical, with dance numbers, props and a small set. The production seems crammed into the small venue and the decision to make the show immersive seemed necessity rather than creative choice. From my seat on the side at the back of the balcony, I got a very good view of the crown of each actors head. As an immersive production, the actors moved around the audience on the lower level, which meant that when they weren’t on the small stage- I couldn’t see them at all. I had not one, but two rails to contend with and often felt like I was watching a bootleg video of a show on YouTube. This was disappointing, especially as I’m such a fan of the show. When booking for this show, I recommend booking for the lower level as side balcony seats created more visibility issues than even the worst ‘restricted view seats’ on the West End (and I sat with a pillar in front of me when I saw Phantom).

Visibility issues aside, as a fan of O’Brien’s lyrics and Hartley’s music, The Stripper does well with it’s source material and this production has enough twists and turns to present a fresh, engaging tale of pulp fiction antics. Highly stylised and with gorgeous costumes, Scala Theatre Ltd’s production of The Stripper is sure to titillate and entertain audiences in a show that has been a long time coming. It’s this reviewers hopes that, now presented, The Stripper will continue to have life and enthral audiences the world over, including sleepy little New Zealand towns.

Reviewed by Stuart James
Photo: David Freeman

THE STRIPPER plays at St James Studio until 13 August 2016