Theatre: A Seventies night devoid of glam
SHANG-A-LANG THE BUSH, LONDON
Monday 16 November 1998
Pauline's two best friends since schooldays - uptight family woman Jackie (Joanne Pearce) and the cheerfully sluttish Lauren (Ona McCracken) who has abandoned her kids for a life of cider and sex - have got off for the night with a couple of the Afro-wigged, black-greasepainted backing musicians in a soul tribute band. That, too, might not seem like the acme of human happiness. But for locked-out Pauline (unmarried, childless, her biological clock ticking loud enough to waken the dead), it would have been a start.
This show does for unreconstructed Bay City Roller fans what Women on the Verge of HRT did for the doting aficianodos of Daniel O'Donnell. Plays by female dramatists which deposit middle-aged women on weekend jaunts to see their idols tend to have two salient characteristics. Firstly, the women define themselves entirely in terms of sex (or the lack of it) and husbands (or the lack of them). And so, secondly, you feel that if a man had written such a piece, he would be howled down by feminists for patronising womankind.
In trying to question the inevitability of all this, through the character of Pauline, Johnson's play nonetheless falls into heavily predictable patterns. The best night of her life, Pauline reveals, was when, as a teenager, she managed to clamber into the Bay City Rollers' van after a gig and snogged Woody. You brace yourself, from then on, for the moment at the end when Pauline will demonstrate a new-found maturity by rejecting Woody as a hampering fantasy. It's also par for the course that this breakthrough will be achieved by having her illusions about her friends shattered. Boasting a monopoly on sentimental unhappiness, Pauline has failed to see that Jackie's marriage is quietly wretched and that Lauren really is guilt-free about ditching her children.
The play is, however, consistently engaging and often very funny. Helped by Mike Bradwell's buoyant, well-acted production, it takes a likeably breezy, no-nonsense attitude to the tacky horror of these occasions which it presents with a chipper explicitness. Excellently played by Peter Jonfield and Stephen Graham, the tribute musicians (one a Sad Sack with custody worries; the other a horny little swaggerer) don't even bother to wash their black greasepaint off before bedding the women, which results in a revoltingly pybald nude moment when they get up amid the vomit and glam detritus the next morning. The play pulls you into the bloody awfulness of performing "covers" in a holiday camp as a fate. But there is always somebody worse off. Suppose you earned a crust impersonating Garry Glitter. "Poor old Gazza - his fucking tribute band's fucked," declares Carl with relish.
A sign at the door of the Bush says that some people may find offence in the language, situations, fashions, and music. If I were a former Roller, I'd sue.
To 12 December. Box office 0181 743 3388
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