(Because some anonymous will undoubtedly bitch and moan that this is coming off of a first preview, let’s get a key fact out of the way: tickets are being sold at FULL PRICE during the preview period. That’s £20-25 for the fringe for a technically unfrozen show. Complain to those responsible for THOSE ethics before complaining about a member of the public rambling on the internet. With that taken care of...)
Ladies and gentlemen, the trainwreck express is now pulling in at the King's Head.
Because Riflemind wasn’t enough of a disaster - because Imagine This actually has good word of mouth coming in from out of town - because someone has extra money to throw around (and to those people, I will be happy to work for you vetting funding requests) there’s Rue Magique, currently previewing and soon to open at the Kings Head. And despite nine years in development, Rue Magique is a show that musical disaster fans will be talking about for years.
As the show is still in previews, I’m going to give the standard free passes: the hard working cast give it their absolute all here, especially Melanie LaBarrie as conflicted madame Desdemona and newcomer Nadia Di Mambro as the sweet voiced Sugar and despite the flaws in her book, Lisa Forrell’s direction gets the right stuff out of her cast. Any flaws with the acting or staging will undoubtedly be fixed by the end of previews.
Now for the carnage.
Rue Magique claims to be based on true stories, and while I have no doubt that such tragedy exists in real life, it’s a questionable area to be taking a musical. The plot here revolves around creole Desdemona, a demanding, game boy addict of an agoraphobic madame who runs a brothel in south London. She has three full timers: a British crack whore, a Jamaican dreaming of opening a nail salon, and a Latvian with iffy English who spends more of her time fulfilling Desdemona’s OCD cleaning demands than landing clients - aka vipers.
The show opens with a song about the run down area, the homeless, and the fierceness required to survive. The customers fight over the women (an early song talks about the air being rife with the smell of lubrication - rhymed with sexual frustration), and Desdemona lays down the rules, lording over her tiny domain. When daughter Sugar - it’s her thirteenth birthday today (despite looking 20) - gives her mother’s snacks to a homeless man, she’s sent out for more and talks to shop boy Rem (who’s 17 but looks 25) who offers to teach her kickboxing (to the tune of a drum machine backed song called “Flex”) as a way of chatting her up. Sugar then goes home and Desdemona informs her that she’s now old enough to start servicing the customers. Sugar sings a tender ballad proclaiming her dreams of a magic birthday party surrounded by a loving family (her father is AWOL), and she performs the last chorus while her head hangs off a table as she’s raped by a rather large man.
I’m going to repeat that bit because it’s a true Springtime for Hitler moment come to life. 13 year old Sugar sings the end of her “I Want” song as she’s being raped by a fattie. It’s not even shocking and edgy because di Mambro looks so much older, but it’s tasteless in the same way that The Blonde in the Thunderbird was tasteless when Suzanne Sommers sang “If I Only Had A Brain” as the voice representing her father boomed abuse.
The show goes all downhill from there. Rem sings to Sugar that not all men are evil, she turns against Desdemona and tries living on the street under the sometimes-watchful eye of the homeless man from the opening, it’s revealed that Rem is one of Desdemona’s old clients, and he eventually persuades the domineering mother to confront her past and reveal her daughter’s origins. I would think the right thing for Rem to do would be putting in a call to social services, but that doesn’t make for a good ending and the reveal comes too late in the second act for such an integration to play out in a way that resolves the mother-daughter tension. Of course, the actual ending isn’t so great either: Desdemona frees her daughter from sexual slavery, but only for tonight because it’s her birthday and she’s expected back at work tomorrow.
I wish I could be more positive about this show coming into town. Despite the squick factor of the characters’ ages (I’d believe it more if they were, say, 15 and 18 or 15 and 20), Forrell’s book does manage to hit most of the right emotional notes, but it’s undermined by Brett Kahr’s songs and their truly dreadful lyrics. Outside of two or three big numbers (the act one face-off between Desdemona and Sugar, the title song sung in Creole, and a comic relief number in the second act by three vipers), the lyrics are jaw-droppingly bad which is a shame because the melodies are nice though a bit bland.
If it were up to me to fix things up, I'd keep Lahr's melodies but bring in another lyricist. I’d also cut the interval and the second act opener (an extended comic song about keeping the house clean - like the aforementioned dream song) to keep the tension high. Likewise I'd try to clean up the some of loose ends and tighten up the character arcs: why does Sugar dream of the West End if she can only leave the house to buy groceries? Does Rem actually know about kickboxing and if so why not have him actually teach Sugar so that she can physically take care of herself by the act one conflict and come across as a real threat?
In the end, Rue Magique is sort of like a prostitute’s Annie crossed with BKLYN, except without the wealthy payoff. At this point, it's not even mock-musical East Hastings from the last series of Slings & Arrows. And yes, when going into the theatre I was thinking of this line from [title of show]: “When Bock and Harnick were writing Tenderloin / they were taking a risk to write a show about whores.” While I’m not sure if Rue Magique can be 100 people’s ninth favourite thing or not, but it may manage to become nine people’s favourite regardless of its flaws.
Where: Kings Head
When: Until 7 December, Tu-Sa @ 19:30, Sa/Su @ 15:30
How Much: £20 (Unreserved)/£25 (Reserved)
Concessions: £17.50. If you hold your ground you can try and get a discount on previews but there is no official discount.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £12.50 because the trainwreck value is that good.
RZ Other Notes: I think I spent about half of the show with my jaw agape from just how ridiculous things played out on stage. Also, I rag on the lyrics quite a bit so I should include some examples:
“Prepare yourself for explosive sex / but no, nothing risky / and she don’t take credit cards or personal cheques.” (this is from a song that's not supposed to be funny - and if it was, the crowd weren't laughing very much)
“When you’re threatened by a junkie / strike a pose and look real funky!”
“When the crop is ripe / put it in your pipe / all the whores become madonnas”
“He’s brave and bold / his bum is very cute / some day he may be mine”
“You must submit / you piece of shit!”
“To reclaim your self-respect / with strong detergent we disinfect”
“If there is soap / then there is hope”
“And so I sit with with my well thumbed pornographic magazine with pages stuck together”