Theatre Review: Kitsch and kin attract a cult following

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Theatre: Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens

Anyone who thinks camp is somewhere boy scouts pitch tents and sing "Ging Gang Gooly Gooly" round the fire should probably give the new West End musical, Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens, a miss. Otherwise, they might be rather taken aback by the sight of a troupe of performers in glittery bondage-gear high-kicking their way down a flight of steps while singing "All I Need Is Disco". Did anyone say "cult"? A shorthand description of Saucy Jack might be: a musical Carry On Blake's Seven.

But the show is stuffed with enough other kitsch references to give a media student wet dreams: Russ Meyer, This Is Spinal Tap, Star Wars, Red Dwarf, Dr Who, Mad Max, Charlie's Angels, Return to the Forbidden Planet, and virtually any other camp classic you care to mention. After two sell-out, Fringe First-winning seasons in Edinburgh before the West End run that begins this week, Saucy Jack was dubbed by the late Jack Tinker in the Daily Mail "the Rocky Horror Show for the millennium". With audiences coming back again and again dressed as their favourite characters (they seem to have a particular penchant for bubble-wrap), booing and hissing the baddie in time-honoured panto fashion and dancing in the aisles to the big show-tunes - as they were when I saw the show at the Hackney Empire before Christmas - who would argue with that comparison? (in a vintage week for artists, the 25th anniversary tour of Richard O'Brien's durable homage to Transylvania and transvestites, starring Jason Donovan, opens at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre on Wednesday).

Cult followers love nothing better than the feeling of superiority to be had from shouting out lines even before the actors. Saucy Jack fans have also lapped up such "in" allusions as the tables fashioned out of the base of Dalek and CP30 and the bar-window modelled on the one Luke Skywalker crashes through when fighting Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back.

As you may have gathered, Saucy Jack does not major on subtlety. In fact, it makes Dan Dare look like a masterpiece of sophistication. The cigarette- paper-thin story about an outerspace serial killer and the avenging Space Vixens on his tail is little more than a pretext for the highest double- entendre count this side of Julian Clary. Even Charlotte Mann, who wrote the book and lyrics, blithely calls Saucy Jack "post-modern smut". The Vixens, who patrol a galaxy full of planets called Frottage 3 and Pubis Minor, glory in the names of Jubilee Climax, Anna Labia and Bunny Lingus. The characters croon songs with such deathless titles as "Glitter Boots Saved My Life," "Plastic Leather and Love," and "Fetish Number from Nowhere." When a Vixen sees a clarinettist, she purrs: "I love your instrument. It just seems to come alive in your hands." Kenneth Williams, are you watching up there?

Mike Fidler, who devised the show with Mann, is assistant director for the West End run. I arrange to meet him at rehearsals in an east London community centre; as I walk through the door, an actor calls out insinuatingly, "can I see your vibro-chamber?" Much to my disappointment, it turns out he's just practising a line from the play.

At a nearby cafe Fidler reveals the profundity of the inspiration behind Saucy Jack: "I had just seen a musical in Edinburgh called Ilse, Queen of the Nazi Love Camp. It made me think that a good title is all you need." The title came from the moment in the film, This Is Spinal Tap .... when the members of the prog-rock band are thinking up titles for a proposed musical about lack the Ripper. "I wrote the pitch before the show," Fidler recalls. "Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens - the musical Spinal Tap never wrote. A Girl Power backlash against Russ Meyer."

A cult following is all very well, but the evangelical Fidler is eager for Saucy Jack to reach a wider audience. With a glint in his eye, he envisages being beamed up to mainstream, merchandising heaven. "I'd love to do Space Vixen dolls for Barbie, or a baseball-jacket that says 'I want to be a Space Vixen' on the back. I've just seen a Nelson Mandela fridge-magnet. Why couldn't we have a Space Vixen fridge-magnet?"

When he first saw the show, Simon Lenagan, Saucy Jack's executive producer from the Counterpoint Theatre Company, had equally big ideas. He realised it had West End potential, but he had to show Space Vixen-style resolution in fighting off the forces of respectability who wanted to water down the show's more, er, outre elements. "A lot of the theatrical establishment frown on Saucy Jack because it's lowest common denominator in many ways," Lenagan reckons.

"They also think it's too gay. The West End is not generally a place where people take risks. Because we're not a recognised producing company - we're not Bill Kenwright, or Duncan Weldon, or Stoll Moss - we do get told, 'who the hell do you think you are?' But we had to stick by our guns because some people wanted to make it what it's not and take away its spirit. We have to overcome those prejudices and fight our corner against Rent, Chicago, Whistle Down the Wind and Saturday Night Fever. We're the little guy battling against the odds. Sometimes we feel we're not in the same ring, but we have faith that we'll be able to stand up for ourselves."

Brave, words. But for all that, can Saucy Jack really work in the West End, even in a theatre as deliciously named as The Queen's? Is Shaftesbury Avenue ready for hordes of bubble-wrap and glitter-boot-clad revellers? There will inevitably be those who deride the show's naivety. The director, Keith Strachan, admits that "some people may not like it because it's not 'real theatre'. You get that with every musical. The critics were sniffy about Les Miserables because it wasn't 'real theatre'. But there's an absence of new work in the West End - it's mostly revivals - and that was what thrilled me about this."

Lenagan chimes in that: "We do get that sneery attitude of 'it's a Fringe show, and it's too derivative'. I know people will leave in the interval - you're never going to stop them. But we'd almost be doing something wrong if some people weren't snooty about the show." However, if pure, unadulterated hedonism - to say nothing of serious rubber-wear - is your bag, then you've come to the right place. Better get down to Sainsbury to stock up on bubble-wrap.

'Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens' opens at the Queen's Theatre, Shaftesbury Ave, London, (0171 494 5040) on Wednesday.

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