It might seem strange for the British Psychoanalytic Council to sponsor a visit to a musical. But, then, Brett Kahr and Lisa Forrell's Rue Magique is hardly a typical musical – it is set in a south London brothel. And Kahr, who wrote the score, emphasises that the show is even unusual among brothel musicals. "Sweet Charity, House of Flowers, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Irma La Douce – they portrayed the women as dance-hall girls or fairy-tale figures or American cheerleaders or saucy tarts. I think ours is the first musical to present the reality of prostitution for women and children." Indeed, its main character, Desdemona, is not only a prostitute herself but has put her 13-year-old daughter, Sugar, on the game.
Kahr, who is a practising psychoanalyst, the author of a book on sex fantasies, a research fellow at the Centre for Child Mental Health and the resident psychotherapist on Radio 2, has been writing songs since he was eight but has recently turned his pastime into a sideline. On the CD Dangerous Cabaret his piano accompanies Tim Flavin, Rosemary Ashe, and various others performing satirical songs, reminiscent of Tom Lehrer and Stephen Sondheim, about divorce, adultery, and sex-mad noisy neighbours. "Patients ask if songs are my relief from analysis, but it's much easier to run a session than compose a score all on your own." An American long resident in England, Kahr has a personal connection with musical theatre as well – he is married to the singer Kim Criswell.
The show, whose multi-racial cast is headed by Melanie LaBarrie, has greatly changed since its 40-minute original version, performed before the Prince of Wales as a benefit for the charity Kids Company, which helps the poor on the South London estates of Camberwell and Peckham. Musicals are not written, they're rewritten, the saying goes, and Kahr, along with Forrell, the director (and assistant director of the King's Head Theatre, where Rue Magique opens tonight), has spent the past nine years introducing and junking subplots, depicting the social-work bureaucracy and other aspects of the wider world, before deciding to keep a tight focus on the mother and daughter. "I wanted to ask," says Kahr, "is there any hope for two people who are at the bottom? Can they find a way, on their own, to a less abusive way of life?"
Such people indeed live far below the vision, or awareness, of most of us. Following the murder of Damilola Taylor, Kahr was asked to write songs for a show based on the life of one of the girls cared for by the charity. He talked to a 12-year-old who was heavily pregnant, and was struck dumb when she remarked, "You know, this isn't my first." He later learnt, he said, that she had been abandoned at birth in a rubbish bin.
Several children had seen one parent kill the other, and many had no idea where they came from. "This went beyond anything I had heard in many years of working in the field of child mental health. I thought, this deprivation, abuse – even torture – is taking place less than three miles from my office. There are an unknown number of these phantom children – their births are never registered, they don't go to school, and don't come to the attention of the social services. In our musical, the young girl doesn't know if 'Sugar' is her real name or just a nickname, and she doesn't know who her father was. Her world is confined to the whorehouse – she can only dream of going to the West End."
Though many of the details in Rue Magique are sordid – Desdemona tries to force Sugar to take on perverted clients, she says Sugar can keep one day's earnings for a birthday treat but changes her mind – the collaborators have left out or toned down a great deal of the reality of low-level prostitution. "I've had to keep in mind the capacities of the theatregoing audience," says Forrell. "There are people who even find Rent unpalatable."
The two have decided, rather than sentimentalising or sensationalising the material, to introduce a note of gentle fantasy. The title song refers to a magic land far away, the focus of the prostitutes' dreams of peace, and a romantic element appears in the shape of a wholesome teenage boy who is attracted to Sugar. There are dance numbers, such as the ganja party (most of the prostitutes are Caribbean blacks), and humorous ensemble ones, such as the clients' lament about what has made them depend on paid sex: "Fat, masochistic, and probably gay/That's why we've come to the whorehouse today."
The johns are called "vipers" – not a real slang word, but one invented to express the prostitutes' feelings about them. "When the men penetrate them," says Kahr, "it feels like a snake attacking them, a creature with a poisonous tongue."
Kahr has tried to make Desdemona less of a monster by showing how she came to be the way she is. "I've drawn on my experience in psychoanalysis, working in psychiatric hospitals, with people who have committed horrific crimes. I've seen that there can be likable aspects of even very vicious people. So I've looked for a likeable aspect of Desdemona – after all, her daughter has a warm heart, and that has to come from somewhere."
Nor, says Forrell, are Desdemona's emotions unique to her circumstances. "I'm a mother, too, and I think Desdemona expresses something we all experience and that many people find difficult – a daughter growing up and leaving home. That's where I hope the story veers into something universal."
Forrell also hopes that the show will be not only an entertainment but a catalyst. "I studied at the Berliner Ensemble, where we were indoctrinated with the idea that theatre could change the world. I was so excited when I came across Brett's show and heard something that I felt could do some of that."
'Rue Magique', King's Head Theatre, London N1 (020-7226 1916), to 7 December