The law was proposed by Marthe Richard, a Paris councillor, who interestingly enough was herself a prostitute until around 1915. It was aimed at cracking down on organised crime.
However, as we see in the theatre production, it also turns the lives of the belles upside down. What awaits them? Uncertainty of life on the street? More vulnerable to violence?
Among the six performers on stage are the co-authors of Belles de Nuit: Bénédicte Charpiat, who plays brothel boss Yvonne, alongside Jonathan Kerr, the villain trying to sell off the brothel, which adds another dramatic twist to the tale.
British actress and singer Sarah Tullamore plays Jeanne, a woman hardened by life’s experiences who lives behind a mask to hide the deep wounds of her past.
Sarah admits it’s the first time in her long singing and acting career to play a prostitute, and in preparing for the role she delved into the history of prostitution in French society that she had never heard about.
And she suspects that not many audience members were au fait about it either.
“One thing to come out of the audience reactions,” she told RFI, “is the debate about the ramifications that law had.”
“It makes you think on the effects it had on women at the time and maybe the effects that it still has on women today – so it’s a very current debate.”
While addressing what still appears to be a taboo subject, Sarah says Belles de Nuit is still a ‘comédie-musicale’ in the old-fashioned sense of the term with its singing, dancing, humour and live music. Most of the characters play instruments during the performance, including Sarah, who plays the flute.
“Although it sounds serious, it’s done in a way that is very touching, moving… it’s not vulgar, and personally it’s a joy to perform. There’s singing and dancing and real theatre to get the point of the story across.”
Restoring famous Paris brothel to former glory
In a curious coincidence, Sarah says the group’s initial reading of the script occurred in a recently refurbished shop which used to be a brothel known as Aux Belles Poules (The Beautiful Hens).
It can be found in rue Blondel, a famous street in the heart of Paris where prostitutes still gather.
The new owners kept the name and opened a public event space in a completely refurbished decor featuring the original elaborate frescoes and tiled floors, providing an intriguing glimpse into the past.
Belles de Nuit is on until the 8 June at the Trévise theatre in the 9th district of Paris, which recently re-opened after a gas explosion which damaged many of the buildings in the street and forced residents to evacuate.
Sarah says she’s excited at the prospect that there might be a future version of Belles de Nuit with subtitles that could see the project go on tour to non-French speaking countries.
In any case, this year is shaping up to be a big one with plans to take her successful one-woman musical comedy London-Paris-Rome further afield – why not to Australia? And there’s a pilot comedy for a television series in the works too.