By Ken Duncum
Directed by David O’Donnell
Circa Theatre | August 4-September 1
Based on the recent Barabra Tate autobiography of the same name, West End Girls is a fun and detailed exploration of life in a brothel in post-WW2 London.
We are welcomed to 1940s London with an anachronistic acoustic version of ‘West End Girls’, the 1984 Pet Shop Boys song, performed by a mincing, nasal street busker (Gavin Rutherford). It transpires 1940s Soho is as much of a “dead end world” as it was in 1984, and Barbra (Victoria Abbott) is 18 and struggling to make ends meet as a waitress in a dodgy restaurant. Her pay only just covers her rent, so it isn’t long before she looks elsewhere for work. She finds her way to the door of Mae (Jessica Robinson), the ‘Queen of Soho’ and one of the hardest working prostitutes in the West End.
The first half of the play sees Barbara play the stranger in a strange land. We are with Barb as she enters the bizarre world of 1940s prostitution. Far from the expected seedy den of iniquity, life in the whore house is playful. Barb’s first day with Mae sees a grand total of 72 visits, enacted by company members entering, removing their clothes to a slide whistle, thrusting three times, and then ejaculating with a comical face. Sex is a bit frivolous, a bit dirty, and a bit funny. Barb spends the act discovering freedom and friendship in a delightfully seedy world. Her innocence serves as the basis for much of the humour; we’re treated to seeing Barb visit Harold and Spencer, the delightfully respectable pharmacists, and procure prophylactics for Mae.
Despite the humour, the first half certainly doesn’t idealise prostitute lifestyle; the grotesque ‘kinks’ reveal the unusual, often menacing side of the job and Mae deals with a (comical) case of crabs. But the party atmosphere that imbues the brothel and the first act is hard to deny when the stage becomes a party as the working girls throw Barbara her very own VE day.
No, the real menace is saved for the second act. Twelve months later, Barb is now integrated into brothel-life, and ready for the more serious plot threads to come to fruition. The words of the neighbourhood bobby come home to roost; “with great freedom comes great responsibility.” Mae’s brutish pimp-cum-boyfriend, Tony, teases his influence over Mae and Barb. Mae works day and night to beat her own “record.” Barb is attacked and must deal with corrupt police. Mae starts taking the performance enhancing drug, ‘purple hearts’. All these plots serve to demonstrate the other dimension of prostitution (it isn’t all coffee and haircuts with the girls), however they come at the expense of the humour and joy that made the first act so successful.
While the actual plot is pretty unremarkable, the world of 1940s Soho is wonderfully realised through impeccable ensemble work and a cohesive design. The action is played out on an impeccably detailed set by Andrew Foster, lit by Marcus McShane. The five-strong company work extremely hard to provide hilarious and imaginative sound effects for onstage action. They act as stage hands and musicians, transitioning us between scenes. They’re even puppeteers, animating the easel that teases and inspires Barb. Aside from Barb and Mae, the company share a behemoth number of characters, playing everyone from fellow prostitutes to magistrates, passersby to clients, criminals and confidants.
Despite its Kiwi creative team, it’s a British story through and through. Nevertheless in a country where prostitution, while decriminalised, is still stigmatised, West End Girls resonates. The simple message that brothel-life doesn’t equate to morally bankruptcy or restrict one’s ability to realise their dreams is enough to justify a play that is so much fun.