The germ of the idea for Strip Search came from a Rodgers and Hart song, Zip! in which a stripper sings of what she’s really thinking about while she’s divesting herself:
Zip! I was reading Schopenhauer last night.
Zip! And I think that Schopenhauer was right.
Zip! was indeed the title of the 1994 version of the play, and it proved difficult to cast because it was very difficult back then to find a stripper who could act, or an actor who could strip convincingly.
The part went to a very young stripper called Adrian Cooper, who appeared as Sailor Boy on the circuit, a waif with a very large penis. His act was the basis of what we did in the show strip, and I tailored the story to his situation and his personality.
Fast forward fifteen years, and I was putting on a Kurt Weill anthology show, Here I’ll Stay, with a cast of four. Three of the cast were absolutely vile (no pun intended) to the fourth, Ian Rowe, because he worked as a stripper on the gay circuit under the name Titus Rowe as well as going for more conventional roles.
To these snobby thespians he couldn’t be a ‘proper’ actor because of his strip work. As far as I was concerned he was the most reliable and personable performer in the company, so I thought, “I’ll show them. Ian will show them.” I got Zip! out of storage and renamed it Strip Search.
Ian’s persona was much more butch than young Adrian, and again we tailored the part to the personality of the actor. We called this stripper Squaddie. Ian was from South Wales and had worked hard to get rid of his Walian accent, so rather wickedly I gave this character a Welsh background too so he had to acquire his accent all over again.
The other big event of the intervening years was the invasion of Iraq and the British involvement in the army of occupation. This gave me a part of Squaddie’s back story, and a context in which he could be both gay and in denial of being gay; also a friendship which had the peculiar intensity of comrades in arms.
One night during the run of the show a genuine member of the Royal Welch, Squaddie’s regiment, came to see the show. I braced myself for his comments afterwards, but far from missing the point, it seemed I’d pinned down the whole experience.
He was particularly impressed with the way I captured the post-Iraq stresses which lead to so much homelessness and drug use among ex-soldiers who are incapable of adjusting to a civilian life where they have to make their own decisions. Other people assumed I must have lived for a time in Triorchy. This just shows that the power of research plus imagination is the equal of lived experience.
Having performed the show at The Rosemary Branch in Islington to some ecstatic reviews, I wanted to take it to Edinburgh. It had been directed by Ian’s partner, Roger, in London, and while it had been a very creditable production and performance, I felt that Ian could be pushed further by a director who wasn’t so closely involved with him personally.
In some ways Roger had been easy on him, and as a result he relied on his charm to get him through. He had such an engaging personality, was so inherently likeable, that it was difficult to get the effect of a complex personality who had many sides which were not particularly likeable.
Perhaps that was also in the writing, so I rewrote sections to reflect the harsher reality I wanted to explore. Indeed, there is a war crime involved here, so sympathy should come with a great deal of qualification.
Ian didn’t want anyone else to direct him, so withdrew from the project. The black actor who replaced him, Damola, was somewhat older but had the most stunning physique. He was heterosexual and had mainly worked in film and TV but had a great ability to tell a story.
Most tellingly, he had a great sadness in his eyes when his face was in repose. You listened to his upbeat philosophy and knew he was whistling in the dark. Damola was a committed Christian and was never entirely comfortable doing the show for a gay audience.
His doubts were intensified when he met a girl who was an equally committed Christian, and he wished to repudiate the show. However, it remains one of our greatest hits, and that is due in no small part to his talented contribution. I hope with the fullness of time he has come to realise his achievement.
Coming at it again for a Zoom performance in July 2021, there are more adaptations. No chance here of having someone up from the audience and covering them with baby oil. No chance either of doing the full nudity on camera which in a theatre the routine led to inexorably.
However, the intimacy of Zoom really brings out the fact that this is not a play about sex, contrary to the wish-fulfilment of some of the reviewers, but about self-discovery, and with it, self-realisation. It’s another of my plays about redemption, though redemption at a price.
Strip Search has been through several incarnations.
This is the Script which was used in Edinburgh in 2012.
It has in it the sound cues, and separately there is a file which is the 'soundtrack' for the strip which interleaves with the spoken strip.
You can create a kind of do-it-yourself strip routine to accompany it. Go on - you know you want to!
Peter Scott-Presland (July 2021)
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