Theatre: Get it off!

Dave Simpson's hen-night comedy may succeed in pulling in the girls but, says Paul Taylor, it's still four pouches short of `The Full Monty'

Back in their dressing-room, three male strippers are facing a stiff challenge. The remaining member of the quartet is a college student, so it stands to reason that he is able to locate the female clitoris without turning a hair. But can the others - given that one is a clandestine gay (Matt Healy), one (Damien Child) has been engaged for three years to a frigid shopaholic, and the last (Michael Magnet) is a preening pint- sized Mike Tyson (but without the delicacy and consideration). The student (Mark Prentice) executes a poster-sized sketch of the relevant area and the men gawp at it with all the gormless puzzlement of Ronald Reagan invited to find Nicaragua on a map of the world. When they each plump, their aim proves to be just about as bad as this show's.

Predating it and already into a fourth national tour, Girls' Night Out by Dave Simpson now struts into the West End clinging to the lunchbox of The Full Monty. Focusing on a northern working-class hen-night at the Feast of Flesh Club, it includes male strip routines (all choreographed by the director, Carole Todd) that, if they don't have the provincial charm of the "amateur" efforts in the hit movie, are likeably good-humoured in their self-mocking parody of swollen-headed male prowess. Men in the audience will feel far less excluded than they did at, say, Cliff Richard's Heathcliff or at the recent Women on the Verge of HRT, where the spectacle of middle-aged females rushing to the stage to touch hands and teddies with ultra-safe middle-of-the-road performers made one have doubts about the human race in general.

A camera panning over a line of humourlessly hypnotised males, a drink in one hand and an itch in the other, is the standard screen method of presenting men watching women strip. On stage and off here, the predominantly female audience gets itself going, all right, but never stops seeing the funny side.

In a rather priggish programme note, Dave Simpson reveals that he was initially slightly wary of the subject matter and told his producer that, if he were to take on the project, "the dynamics of the play wouldn't be male stripping with surround scenes as wallpaper; it would be funny, with dramatic and character developments and, hopefully, with several layers, but - most importantly of all - written from the women's point of view." It's fascinating to find that this was his intention, for what he has produced makes Are You Being Served? look as though it were scripted by George Eliot.

In addition to The Full Monty, a telling point of comparison is with Willy Russell's Stags and Hens, a 1978 play (and later film) that also homes in on a gender-split prenuptial Northern knees-up. A measure of how liberated Girls' Night Out actually is can be gauged by looking at all three works' takes on the ticklish topic of public loos, those supposed bastions of male/female exclusivity.

In The Full Monty, a woman is viewed, by a man in hiding, having a raucous stand-up slash at a urinal in the Gents of a working men's club (there being so few working men now) during an evening of Chippendales-rip-off fun. It's an emblem of how emasculated the men feel ("I tell you, when women start pissing like us, we're finished") in a film where the women hold the economic power but, ironically, the actresses get much the inferior roles.

There's a political dimension in Stags and Hens, too: here the mates of the drunken groom-to-be invade the Ladies to stop the bride-to-be from calling the wedding off. Trapped in the cruddy club with no conventional exit route, she, in turn, invades the Gents, smashes the window and escapes from a stunted life where even her female friends feel she's letting the side down. "What would happen if every woman did that, eh?" asks one of them. "Who'd be married today if we all took notice of how we feel? eh? eh?"

By contrast, the loo in the apparently limitlessly accessible strippers' changing-room in Girls' Night Out is just the place where Damien Child's amusingly dimwit hunky-novice stripper noisily achieves congress with his normally-too-busy-shopping fiancee (Nicola Jeanne), who has been aroused by unwittingly witnessing his act. He's in a highwayman's mask at the time and it's only when his posing pouch comes adrift that she recognises him. Shades of President Clinton and those allegedly distinguishing marks? No, it's because it's shaped like a banana, which gives you some idea of the standard of single entendre on offer here. Even these are explained: "Sarah - I think I'm rigid!" "She means frigid!" Oh, right.

Girls' Night Out thinks it's hip because it allows one woman to knee a chauvinist pig in the balls and another to admit to not having had an orgasm until she was 50 (with an adulterous lover). It fails to see, by and large, that the females are (from the seven-month-pregnant ninny with a whine like a burglar alarm to "Miss MFI Bargain Hunter 1998") insulting stereotypes. Even allowing for the fact that one doesn't expect the Vassar Essay Society at a working-class hen night, the brains of Simpson's female creations seem (thanks to him, not to them) to be every bit as much between their legs as are the men's. The show lands some way wide of the G-spot.

To 2 May, Victoria Palace, Victoria Street, London W1. Booking: 0171- 834 1317

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