`Chicago' divides the house: great, drool the men: crude, loathsome and semi-pornographic, cry the women

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The Independent Online
It is, wrote the critics, or some of them, a show to die for. "My kinda show," punned at least two headlines this week, taking a lyric from the old song.

Chicago, a Tony winner on Broadway, has become the hottest ticket in London in its opening week here.

But the tale of high-kicking women prisoners in fishnet tights getting nightclub bookings as their criminal notoriety increases might yet earn a less comfortable footnote in musical history - the show that found a marked gender divide in appreciation.

Critics raving over the show have largely been male. Though not all have been convinced by any supposed insights into the justice system, nearly all praised the dancing and sexiness.

The cast manage to "bump and grind their way through such sensationally erotic dance routines without getting arrested ... it's emphatically a musical for grown-ups and it offers entertainment at its most dangerously alluring," wrote Charles Spencer of the Daily Telegraph.

A "highly intelligent, expertly choreographed revival" wrote Michael Billington in The Guardian.

But the bumping and grinding have struck some female viewers as less than alluring. Germaine Greer, who was at the first night, said: "I found it loathsome.

"First of all, I was worried by the whole loathsome plot, which implied that when broads kill guys they get away with it, which is precisely the opposite of the truth."

She also told BBC2's Late Review that she "hated the style of dancing, the swivelling shoulders and pelvis kind of stuff".

Heather Neill, arts and literary editor of the Times Educational Supplement, said yesterday: "From the woman's point of view, if you take away the attraction of female bodies writhing in fishnet tights, all that is left is the one irony of turning morality upside-down.

"I've got nothing against fishnet tights. But if they hadn't been sexy people, if they had just been people with good voices making this supposed argument about the justice system, if it had been a straight play, then you would have said it was very superficial."

Georgina Brown, theatre critic of the Mail on Sunday, added: "As a show it was incredibly slick, confident, sassy and cynical. But its methods were semi-pornographic.

"You can call it dancing, but actually it was stuff which would not be out of place in Raymond's Revue Bar. There was one moment when a male dancer had a girl doing the splits just under his chin. He could have had a view up to her tonsils. Its methods were crude, but it was set in a women's prison and women prisoners are not going to be subtle. It is a show about corruption and manipulation and those are the methods it uses to deliver its message.

"There was too much bumping and grinding to be sensual. But it was doing it all very knowingly and on its own terms. I don't accept the show divided men and women. A lot of sensitive men would have felt uncomfortable."

Suzanne Wilford, former education officer with the English Shakespeare Company, said: "The problem is a more general one extending beyond Chicago. Often people in the theatre exploit stereotypes unnecessarily, and it offends people. And the offence extends beyond young women."

Peter Thompson, a spokesman for the producers of Chicago, said: "We simply don't accept this. Women in the first-night audience ranged from Baroness Thatcher to Dame Diana Rigg to Sabrina Guinness and they all adored it.

-- David Lister

Arts News Editor