What would you get if you crossed Arthur Miller with Max Miller and added a wittily knowing score and a few nipple-tassels?
The answer is something not unlike Burlesque, a new musical by Adam Meggido and Roy Smiles that yammers with talent, pertinence, and potential. It's 1952 and we are in a decaying burlesque theatre “somewhere in the US”. As that art form declines, the Reds-under-the-beds scare rises in intensity. Blacklisted comic and father-to-be, Johnny Reno, is offered a second chance to clear his name and save his career but only if he is prepared to testify against Rags Ryan, his partner in a comedy double act.
The rich but somewhat meandering first half risks losing focus as it sets up an unnecessary sub-plot and lavishes slightly too much attention on entertaining, if over-familiar types from this world of grimy glitz. It all comes together with a vengeance, though, after the interval, in a knock-out opening number where an archly coy but sizzling Little Red Riding Hood (splendid Victoria Serra) strips to the nipple-clamps and subjects the witch-hunting McCarthy and his climate of fear to pseudo-innocent, devastating mockery (“Ooh, Senator what big eyes you've got!”). As the pressures on Johnny build, a bump-and-grind trio in black recur like a baleful Greek chorus to taunt and tempt him with the grounds for “Betrayal”.
The show could afford to engineer more such moments (real or fantastical) where the louche-but-honest conventions of burlesque pose a satiric reproach to the paranoid hypocrisy and repressiveness of HUAC. But what bite and vitality are already there in the material with its exuberant pastiche of Abbott & Costello-style verbal and physical slapstick and its hilarious, intricately rhyming point songs – like the one about how you'd better start writing novels if you are ugly and charmless and want to pull the birds: Leo Tolstoy may have been a naughty boy, “But he got dolls in plurals/He kissed them all over the Urals”. Jon-Paul Hevey and Chris Holland, who play the engaging Reno and the charismatically washed-up, gay and alcoholic Rags, bring joyous, razor-sharp timing to their patter as do their backstage counterparts – Linal Haft as Freddie, the fast-talking Jewish theatre owner, who oozes stale lechery from every pore, and Buster Skeggs's Lula, the seen-it-all old timer who tells him that “You know it's wrong/To live your whole life through your schlong”.
Directed by Meggido, the piece works beautifully in the intimate surroundings of Jermyn Street Theatre, thanks to the ace design by Martin Thomas that allows the action to shuttle between onstage and backstage through a fake, velvet-curtained proscenium. True, as music drama, the piece needs fine-tuning and more thought about burlesque as a metaphor. But the recent revival of interest in the art form has coincided with the War on Terror and another era where simply to dissent is to be thought unpatriotic. Hence the timeliness of what is a clever, heartfelt and hugely entertaining show. If it doesn't eventually transfer to a venue where it can loosen its corsets, I hereby promise to eat my entire collection of retro lingerie.