The murder of Sheila Anderson, in 1983, provides the inspiration for Pretty Knickers’ six woman show, Salamander. Their story opens just after the killing, with police officer, Pat, leading a drop-in session for local prostitutes, with biscuits provided by well-meaning church volunteer, Joan. It’s part of a mission to restore trust in the police and reopen communication channels. The session is attended by four deeply skeptical sex workers.
Tempted perhaps by Joan’s brownies, perhaps by the possibility of a cash prize for a winning poem, the ladies start to drop in regularly and build a rapport with Pat, but even more with the lovably diffident Joan. Through conversation, spoken word and song we get to know the different personalities of the group, their relationships and something of their route into prostitution. They are drawn with a fairly broad brush – the clown, the mother hen, the posh one, the quiet one – but the rapport and banter between them is well done and entertaining. Their costumes, overtight corset tops, lurid mini-skirts, seasonally-inappropriate shorts, and bomber jackets seem to evoke the era and the profession, or at least the era and profession as seen in Minder and The Bill. These are very sympathetic characters; defiant, caring, funny and just trying to earn a living. If anything, a little more shade wouldn’t hurt, to make them really believable.
We also get to know Joan, who is anxious to win over these lost sheep, but is instead won over by them, disarmed by their plain speaking and good natures. Becky Niven plays Joan beautifully, expressing her naivety and sensitivity with comically exaggerated expressions, but she does feel more like a woman from the 50s than the 80s, and in order to serve as a counterpoint to the self-employed prostitutes, Joan and her marriage are rather caricatured.
The real strength of the show is its music and poetry. Accompanied by Lewis Lauder’s guitar, the characters punctuate their story with singing and humming, and there are some really beautiful harmonies. Tiff (Mhairi McCall) sings very movingly about putting on a front, a persona, a pseudonym for the game, while rather less sensitively Roxy (Niamh Kinane) recites a highly amusing poem about her clients’ genitals. When they’re singing together you really see the strength and cohesion of this female ensemble.
It is hard to believe that in 2023 a Vaults audience needs to learn, as Joan does, that prostitution isn’t a contagious sin. That said, it is still the case that society treats the murder of ‘those women’ differently from the murder of ‘us women’. In fact, given what we currently know about the many bad apples of the Met Police, the sensitivity, empathy and care shown by the Pat of 1983 seems very much like progress, compared with where we are now.
Written by: Mhairi McCall & Cal Ferguson
Directed by: Kirsty Pennycook
Produced by: Lana Pheutan
Salamander has completed its current run at VAULT Festival 2023. You can follow Pretty Knickers on Twitter here to find out about future performances and shows.