In Charlie Brooker's mock-police procedural A Touch of Cloth, one of the scenes is set in a lap-dancing club. The characters aren't paying any attention to the dancers while they discuss their nefarious intentions – which as just as well as, in the background we can glimpse a pole dancer apparently miming the breaststroke. 

The joke works because it captures a standard TV cliche – that serious criminals are always hard at work in such places – and that you can tell they're serious because they're not paying any attention to the actual function of the venue. If going to a lapdancing club demostrates an unconscious disregard for public mores, as the cliche suggests, then going to lapdancing clubs but failing to acknowledge any sense of transgression, or even interest, in being there, invokes something worse – "true" criminality.  Even sophisticated TV dramas (like The Sopranos and The Wire) use the trope, and the ubiquity of the image allows such a joke to be made and understood. What should be a shocking setting is now simply absurd or boring; a distraction from the story. The girls in the background, whether they're dancing, drinking or pretending to be dolphins aren't characters, they're simply props for bad boys.

What we rarely see is the view from the pole (and even more rarely do we see it in a realistic mode). Laura McClusky, following up the excellent Nina and Shaz, attempts, and for the most part succeeds, in giving these women back their voices. 

The main reason for her success is that she puts character first. Having fled from the Congo with her aunt Leonie, seventeen year old protagonist Amba dreams of becoming a dancer. Struggling to complete the academic coursework required for university, however, she is tempted into lapdancing by the prospect of easy money. Leonie, struggling herself to make ends meets as a cleaner, turns a blind eye, while well-meaning Eleanor, a friend from the local Women's Centre, can only exert limited influence. Amba's best friend Kelly is also a lapdancer, and her apparently level-headed outlook to her work encourages Amba to enter the business herself. 

Against the trauma of their flight from the Congo, both Amba and Leonie see the work as grotty but trivial – a fast track to financial dependence. The men may be unsavoury, but supposedly not allowed to touch, they are at least passive ("PLs" - "Pathetic Losers" in the dancers' slang). The women seem to be in control. The unravelling of this myth in Amba's gradual slide from waiting bars through lapdancing to more sordid acts is comprehensible and convincing. 

McCluskey's dialogue excels in capturing friendships that run across generations and classes, and her characters speak to one another with a rich mixture of affection, disapproval, occasional jealousy and compassion. There are very few false notes, and rarely do any give way to issue-laden speechmaking. Akira Henry as Amba inhabitats her role with great verve and winning enthusiasm, although the bursts of dance she is given sometimes feel more contrived than spontaneous, while Faith Edwards brings a calm dignity to the part of Leonie and Amy Newton, as the resilient Kelly, is natural and entertaining.

There is a slight abruptness to the conclusion, and it is possible the real nastiness of lapdancing and its advocates aren't exposed. But in concentrating on the women's friendships, McCluskey leavens bleak stories with crucial notes of humour, hope and solace. This is a play well worth catching.

Cake and Congo, at Theatre503Jimmy Kelly reviews Cake and Congo at Theatre503.4