Two Women from the WI and Their Crusade to Legalise prostitution: now it’s a musical.


One of the most vexed questions around prostitution today concerns the legal status and rights of sex workers.  Feminists and policy makers fall into two camps.  Some argue that prostitution can never be viewed as a career-choice like  any other, as women are almost invariably forced into it by poverty, abuse and addiction and involvement will always result in degradation and self-destruction.  Others contend that women are free to do whatever they wish with their bodies, including selling sexual services, and they should be able to do so legally, putting them beyond the control of pimps and enabling them to organise their business free from the risk of disease, attack and even violent death.

Rumpy Pumpy!, a new musical by Barbara Jane Mackie, puts the case for decriminalisation, using the true story of Jean Johnson and Shirley Landels who, outraged by the murder of six young, working women in Ipswich in 2006, went around the world in search of the ideal brothel.  The musical also portrays their conflict with the upper echelons of the WI, who initially opposed the adoption of such a controversial campaign under their banner.

Barbara Mackie, an Isle of Wight-based writer, was drawn to their story by a Channel 4 documentary, A WI Lady’s Guide to Brothels.  She has interwoven it with a fictional narrative of the women of a Portsmouth brothel which includes the Madam, her daughter, the girls she employs and various respectable local figures who use their services, while playing lip-service to the system which makes offering them illegal.  Nemesis appears in the form of a local police woman, Detective Constable Hecks, who is determined to sweep the brothel away.

Barbara based the fictional strand on interviews with brothel owners and prostitutes.  She emphasises the sheer mundanity of their world; the daily grind of servicing clients and the camaraderie they enjoy as they share the trials entailed in this form of labour.  The audience is encouraged to see how easy it is to slip into this world when women are hard-pressed to provide for children, sick relatives or pay for higher education.

One of the musical’s most touching aspects is the relationship between Jean and Shirley, their rapport and their daring and resource, as they venture into places where two rather refined ladies in their 60’s and 70’s might never have expected to find themselves, such as the Moonlite Bunny Ranch in Nevada.

It’s quite an achievement to create a piece of theatre about such a weighty subject without drowning the audience in agitprop.  As an old-wave feminist I probably incline towards at the Dworkin’s view of sex work as inherently abusive, but I still enjoyed my evening at the Windsor Royal Theatre, as the music, lyrics and choreography bounced along from pathos to humour to sauce with great verve and without preaching.

Rumpy Pumpy! will be appearing at the Union Street Theatre, SE1 0LR, 14th November to 19th November.

Two leading roles are played by Linda Nolan and Louise Jamieson.

It runs for 1hour and forty minutes and there is an interval.

Jane McChrystal © 2016.