Perhaps expecting a musical to be subtle is like expecting a cow to understand the finer points of quantum mechanics. But even so, while Rumpy Pumpy, a piece of original writing by Barbara Jane Mackie, offers some uplifting tunes and bawdy humour, the way in which it is staged ultimately obscures rather than enhances the complexity of its serious central theme.

The show, directed by Simon Greiff, takes the story of Jean Johnson (Louise Jameson) and Shirley Landels (Tricia Deighton), two members of the Hampshire Women’s Institute (W.I.) and their mission to legalise prostitution in the UK. The subject matter is complex and nuanced, but I feel that rendering these women’s crusade in the guise of a musical is an odd choice. It treats the issue as one dimensional, the arguments for and against being reduced to a series of witticisms, slogans, one liners and catchy showtunes. It also has the effect of producing a somewhat monolithic, even preachy, tone- as if the work was a manifesto for the cause, rather than anything more considered.

The action follows Jean and Shirley as they travel around the world searching for the “perfect brothel”. They begin with Holly Spencer, the owner of a local establishment ably portrayed by Linda Nolan. They are joined by a host of supporting characters, mostly notably Sally Frith as a Polish sex worker named Gosia and Claudia Cadette as Mags, Holly’s loyal sidekick. The ensemble work well as a cohesive whole, some tedious banter notwithstanding, but at times the cast don’t access the full emotion of their characters’ situations, almost as if they are just going through the motions.

As the duo travel around the world they come to have a deeper understanding of what it is to be a working girl and learn to better fight for their rights. However, the plot and characterisation hold it back a bit: the characters, while taking great pains not to appear clichéd, do unfortunately fall back into tired tropes. The action skips from one improbable scenario to another and, of course, everything is neatly tied up by the end.

I am well aware that these are the hallmarks of musical theatre, but for the genre to be successful a performance must do something original with them; undermine or transcend them in some way. While Rumpy Pumpy certainly isn’t a bad show – there are some excellent songs and solid performances – it doesn’t go any further than that. For me there were untapped possibilities just waiting to be unravelled.

Rumpy Pumpy is playing at the Union Street Theatre until November 19.

Photo: Scott Rylander