Based on a true story, new musical Rue Magique turns the intimate space at the King’s Head pub theatre into a brothel on Coldharbour Lane, South London.
It is here where Creole brothel madam Desdemona sells her ‘stock’ of four prostitutes to customers they name ‘vipers’. Amanda Posener’s Latrice is the pretty one with attitude; Rani (Anna Stolli) is the trashy one whose PVC thigh boots cover more of her flesh than anything else; Sonia (Amanda Minihan) is a frumpy Latvian immigrant; Sugar (Nadia Di Mambro) is just 13 – and Desdemona’s daughter.
It is the relationship between vulnerable, wide-eyed Sugar and her mother that is the central theme of Brett Kahr and Lisa Forrell’s story, and it is a difficult one to comprehend; why Melanie La Barrie’s Desdemona – trussed up in a boob-busting corset – would push her pre-pubescent daughter into prostitution is initially unclear. With hard eyes and a heart of stone, Desdemona seems afflicted with a psychosis that sees her veer from ball-breaking brothel mama to an almost childlike figure who likes eating sweets, is scared to leave the house and is obsessed with cleanliness.
Enter 17-year-old Rem (Terel Nugent), who works in the local shop where Sugar goes to buy her mum’s sweets. The pair strike up a friendship, with Rem providing the impetus for Sugar to stand up to her mum and leave the brothel, before a final confrontation with Desdemona reveals the reasons why the woman is the way she is.
Kahr’s score is a mixture of styles, ranging from sugar-sweet ballads (Rue Magique, Fantasy Birthday) to Desdemona’s psychotic raging in You Belong To Me and a gospel-inspired number about cleaning performed by the older trio of prostitutes. A highlight is The Viper’s Tale, a comic barbershop-style tune sung by three male clients giving their various reasons for visiting the brothel – “I don’t want a ho, I want a ho-mo”, sings one.
But the comedy is at odds with this essentially shocking tale. Sugar’s situation is uncomfortable to watch and even the redemption the writers propose for Desdemona at the end does not take away from the fact that she has forced her daughter, barely into her teens, into a life from which she will never, in her head, be able to fully escape.