Based on the true story of two ladies from the Hampshire branch of the Women’s Institute who decide to campaign for the total decriminalisation of prostitution and end up touring brothels from Portsmouth to New Zealand in search of the perfect working conditions for working girls, the potential in new musical Rumpy Pumpy is certainly rich for exploitation. Taking on all responsibilities for book, music and lyrics, Barbara Jane Mackie has made strides in that direction but in focusing too much on stereotypical interpretations of sitcom-like caricatures, the powerful potential of the story feels lost.
Musically, the show has its pleasant moments and for a novice writer, Mackie has a knack for an easily hummable melody with a number of strategically placed reprises meaning that some of these tunes, like “The Perfect Brothel” and “Rumpy Pumpy Pumpy Pumpy Pumpy” will work their way into your head.. Lyrically, the work suffers from the uncertainty of tone, light-hearted ditties rub shoulder pads with impassioned torch songs without any real convincing connective tissue and consequently, the show suffers from a lack of definitive musical identity despite sterling work from MD Tom Marlow.
Additionally, the book has serious issues on a number of fronts. Mackie’s dialogue constantly errs towards corny, cliché-ridden truisms rather than ever giving us believable characters; she packs in a number of sub-plots that do nothing to advance the real heart of the story (as in brothel madam Holly’s daughter’s romantic affairs) or worse, cheapen it (as in the risible God-fearing police officer and her embarrassing antics); and most crucially, it completely runs out of steam midway through the second act, leading to a lazy and scarcely credible set of happy endings for all concerned.
Some changes are cosmetic and so easily tweaked – a scene with old friends Holly and Mags reminiscing about their early years is then followed by a song…with Holly and Mags reminiscing about those same early years – scenes like that can be snipped. But it is the main focus of the show, and its integral structure, that needs addressing more critically, with the decision needing to be made about what story Mackie really wants to tell effectively. The material is there in the investigative experiences of the WI ladies and the set-up of the Portsmouth brothel, the focus just needs to be considerably tightened up.
Director Thom Sellwood’s decision to go for a more-or-less bare-bones production doesn’t always help either. The smidges of choreography from Courtney Daly and Nessy Warry don’t go far enough, the lack of set feels inexplicable given the attention paid to the multiple costumes used, and the general air of sharpness about the whole affair felt lacking. If Rumpy Pumpy had been advertised as a rehearsed reading or workshop, you’d be inclined to be more forgiving but this production just serves to highlight how much of a work-in-progress it actually is. With a firm hand to redraft and reshape, there could well be more slap and tickle with Rumpy Pumpy to be had in the future.
Rumpy Pumpy runs at the Landor Theatre from Tuesday 14th April – Sunday 19th April