The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas

Date 17th October 2015
Society South Manchester AOS
Venue Royal Northern College of Music
Type of Production Musical
Director Eleanor Ford
Musical Director Tom Chinnery
Choreographer Lisa Bradshaw

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Author: David Slater

Based in part on a true story (and one imagines, rather like in the opening titles of 'Dragnet', where "only the names have been changed to protect the innocent...") this bouncy little musical tells the story of the 'Chicken Ranch' whorehouse in Texas and the knockabout adventures of its staff of girls. As you can imagine with such a fruity subject matter, the goings-on on-stage were very much for adults only, with a smattering of very Anglo Saxon words throughout the evening's entertainment. Rather more concerning for those of us who may be easily shocked, the idea of a whole score dominated by the nerve-jangling sounds of 'Country and Western' music may have sent those with a pathological distaste for the steel guitar, cowboy boots, line-dancing, wife beating, incest and extreme right wing opinions beating a path to the nearest exit. Fortunately SMAOS managed to turn what could have been this reviewer's worst nightmare into a jolly evening's entertainment and a surprisingly wholesome one at that.

The RNCM's studio theatre space was arranged to accommodate a traverse stage with the artfully decorated runway down the centre of the audience seating providing the arena for the evening's action. This was a mixed blessing in many ways as although it provided an intelligent choice for many scenes - the whorehouse girls could drape themselves lasciviously around the playing space and use the supporting poles imaginatively - it did throw a spanner in the works occasionally - for example, the tea trolley seemed to take forever to get from where it was to where it needed to be... Nevertheless, on the whole the staging helped rather than hindered the overall look and feel of the production. Having the band tucked away slightly but yet still very much a presence was also a good choice and the audience could fully appreciate the authentic country sounds (shudder!) emanating forth throughout the evening.

Introducing the action with a potted history of the Chicken Ranch, Justin Morley did a sterling job as the Band Leader: easy on both the ear and the eye, he proved to be a safe pair of hands throughout the evening and, strolling forth with his trusty guitar to act as a sort of 'narrator', was a welcome addition to the stage. I wasn't really sure of exactly what part the band were playing in the show's narrative (was the band a part of the plot and the action?) to need a 'band leader' (who very definitely was part of the action) but I dare say that's a result of my woeful ignorance rather than a fault of the production! A fault of the show rather than this production of it however was the Band Leader's regrettably brief spell on-stage: his role in proceedings seemed to be nothing other than a very occasional appearance to pass a redundant comment or two. It was a shame that more couldn't have been made of Justin's role as strolling minstrel.

Head honcho of the Whorehouse, Miss Mona Stangley, was played with a quiet, confident dignity by Zoe Hulme who introduced us to her girls and the house rules, with new recruits Angel and Shy slotting in nicely (if you'll pardon the expression.) Phillipa Shellard as Angel and Laura Pattinson as Shy gave two very fine pen portraits of their characters and were, in a way, the audience's way in to the seamy world of brothel life. The other ladies of the ranch were played confidently by an accomplished supporting female cast. It was evident that everyone in the Chicken Ranch had relished the chance to really let their hair down and threw themselves body and soul into their roles, with Sarah Phillips - definitely a performer to keep your eye on - giving yet another relaxed and polished performance as the long-suffering waitress, giving an affecting outsider's point of view with her song, 'Doatsey Mae'.

The local Sheriff, Ed Earl Dodd was played by Mark Wood who successfully captured the character's weak, vacillating personality and managed to suggest the Sheriff's quiet, shady hypocrisy very well. TV's moral crusader Melvin P Thorpe was given just the right amount of self-righteous pomp and bluster by Mal Wallace and Dave Barker produced my favourite performance of the evening with a very oily Governor of Texas. Other smaller roles were skillfully played by members of the chorus, bringing to life a host of different characters; corrupt townsfolk, Melvin P Thorpe's TV congregation, brothel visitors, a football team and a senator amongst others. This archipelago of supporting roles did however lead to some confusion from time to time as to who was who: it also started a train of thought which unfortunately began to pick at the fabric of the production, eventually unravelling the various strands of the evening's entertainment and sadly, made it very difficult to put the pieces back together to make a coherent whole.

The aforementioned use of the company in multiple roles - a common enough occurrence in stage productions, I know - particularly in the cosy atmosphere of the studio theatre space, muddied the waters a little as far as the various characterisations went. Having the same performers playing roles on both sides of the moral divide confused things for me, reducing the characters to mere ciphers. This wouldn't have mattered had the production decided to take the line of presenting the piece as a kind of Brechtian debate on the morals of prostitution but (thankfully!) that didn't happen. As a result, I found it difficult to engage with deeper thematic material inherent in the piece.

I also had a bit of an issue with fathoming exactly when the action was supposed to be set. The show was originally set in the 1970s and there were indeed many references to this throughout the script: the shockwaves of existential doubt caused by Watergate and Vietnam which ran through '70s America left behind a nation which seemed dazed and confused as previously long held certainties crumbled, leaving behind a much more cynical and self-examining nation. The show's take on hypocrisy, double-dealing and moral turpitude seemed ideally suited to its '70s setting but strangely, there was no attempt made with this production to either locate the action firmly in its own time and place, nor to update any references to make it a contemporary piece - which would have worked just as well as political jiggery-pokery and bare-faced hypocrisy don't seem to have gone out of fashion! Costumes were very much of the moment, iPhones were in evidence and the general feel of the show was very much of the 21st Century. This jarred with many references in the script which suggested a 1970s setting: added to which, if Miss Mona was a young woman at the time of Kennedy's inauguration in 1961 and still looked sprightly and well-preserved over 50 years later, I need to find out her secret of everlasting youth! In all seriousness though... arguing over the details of exactly when the show was set may seem to be a trivial point, or an exercise in sniping at easy targets to no purpose but for me, it did make any of the more interesting points the show was trying to explore more difficult to get a handle on or to appreciate fully.

Although on the whole vocal performances were of a high standard, I felt that there were occasional dips which did throw a wet blanket over the sultry goings-on at the Chicken Ranch. 'Twenty Four Hours of Loving' wasn't quite as fiery as it might have been due in no small part to the shaky vocals but then I did see the final performance on Saturday night and perhaps by then, voices were tiring. Ensemble singing was of the usual SMAOS high standard for the most part however and standout numbers for me included 'The Sidestep', '20 Fans' and 'A Lil' Ol' Bitty Pissant Country Place'.

The ladies were given some interesting routines throughout the show, the gentlemen of the football team literally bared all with humorous effect in Act One and the Governor's 'Sidestep' in Act Two was a particular highlight.

MD Tom Chinnery managed to conjure up a lively sound from the band (and when someone with my phobia of Country music can settle down for an evening's entertainment without breaking into a cold sweat whenever the steel guitar issued forth, that's a big achievement!) Aside from the handful of gripes mentioned above, this was a show which had obviously inspired the cast and crew to put their heart and soul into it. For me, the whole didn't quite add up to the sum of its parts but despite that, this was a production which clearly demonstrated a society striving to produce a musical drama of quality and for that SMAOS are to be applauded. My thanks to all at the society for making myself and Stuart so very welcome and I look forward to the next production with interest.