Opening just after a twerking Miley Cyrus gyrating against a middle-aged man has reignited the debate of female self-empowerment versus exploitation, this new play feels well timed in terms of the questions it raises.
Amba, brought by her father from the Democratic Republic of Congo to London as a child, loves to dance. But she’s torn between studying it at university and dancing at a local strip bar to make enough money for her and the aunt she now lives with to escape relentless poverty.
Writer and director Laura McCluskey interviewed lap dancers and their families about their experiences, resulting in this impassioned show – performed by an all-female cast – which takes a wide-ranging look at sex, abuse and cultural identity, as well as immigrant hardship.
This is a lot to cover in just over an hour and McCluskey sometimes hurries. Amba’s strip-bar friend Kelly comes across as a collation of viewpoints rather than a person; although her matter-of-fact attitude to her job is another layer to the play’s refreshingly complex world.
Akiya Henry is fantastic as Amba, imbuing her with a spiky vulnerability that rings absolutely true. A powerful sequence of dances charts her character’s distressing descent from the liberation of rhythm to dead-eyed titillation.
Faith Edwards’ aunt Leonie, a Congolese refugee, is protective of her niece but relishes the freedom money brings, challenging her friend Eleanor’s sanctimony when she starts buying rather than making her own cakes.
This presentation of other perspectives is the play's greatest strength. Jade Williams ’s Eleanor, the traumatised survivor of a sexual assault, may be right to condemn Amba’s occupation but McCluskey refuses straightforward moral judgements.
By Tom Wicker