Dark and gloomy winter day, feel the force of THE BAY CITY ROLLERS. That was my inspiration for a trek into the deepest wilds of Islington (beyond the Almeida!) to the Kings Head Theater, where a night spent watching a second play by the author of Mama Mia seemed a likely mood lifter. Three middle aged women go off for a seventies weekend where “nothing quite goes according to plan?” Just add a few pints of cider and it sounded perfect – despite the fact Shangalang hadn’t seen a revival since its 1998 debut at the Bush Theatre.
Surprisingly, this was not a particularly cheerful story. It’s really about the disappointments of middle age, and it’s worse than usual as not only are the characters realizing they haven’t accomplished their dreams (and aren’t likely to), but they’re also discovering that the people in their lives are unsupportive and sometimes downright mean. This was really unexpected given that it was billed as a fun romp, but, truth be told, after lead characters Pauline (Lisa Kay) and Jackie (Kellie Batchelor) take off their wigs and ruffled shiny satin jumpsuits in the second ten minutes, this play is really about women hitting middle age gracelessly.
To summarize: Pauline is forty and wants “true love” – not an unreasonable wish for anyone – but is so fixated on finding “the one” that she seems to have not spent any time investing in developing herself as a person. She’s shallow, selfish and immature, demanding time and attention from her friends without bothering to be a friend back. This is a shame, because her best mate Jackie, who is in an unloving, controlling relationship with her husband, really needs support. Then there’s third wheel Lauren (Samantha Edmonds), who is little more than a functioning alcoholic and could have used a solid intervention years ago.
To play off of these characters we have two guys who are performing in the tribute bands: Vince (Thomas Craig) and Carl (Ben McGregor). Vince is a pile of middle-aged issues who spends all of his time complaining about his ex; while Carl is a good-time boy with a big libido and little moral backbone. The men (and two of the women) hook up, which leads to a situation in which a lot of the uglier elements of female relationships are revealed, such as jealousy, slut-shaming, lookism … frankly, everything that a “weekend with the girls” is supposed to NOT be. It was terrible to watch the three women ripping into each other – even worse than it had been listening to them talk about their lives as if men (and pulling men) was really all there was to life. And this is BEFORE the men get started in on the women. What I wouldn’t have given for all of them to have just broken out into song, but no such luck!
The show ended quite ambiguously, with some tentative attempts at outreach between Jackie and Pauline that didn’t seem likely to undo the damage from earlier. While it had clearly been a transformative weekend for them, it seemed like what they had discovered was how hopelessly crap their lives were. A teenaged dream, before this show, might have been to have a cute young pop star as a boyfriend; but the message I walked away with was that it is believing that your friends will really be there for you that is the real illusion of youth, one whose loss hurts far more than not getting a date with David Bowie.
Fortunately, the performances in this tiny space were quite good. Edmonds’ Lauren was so believable as a moral-free good time girl and mooch; Kay seemed not to have a bit of shame about anything her character was doing; Craig’s turnaround from angry working man to “hearts and butterflies” seemed very naturalistic; and Batchelor really caught the balancing act her character was trying to pull off as she attempted to be a good friend and a constrained wife. For heavy-duty Rollers fans, there probably wasn’t enough of the music (as most of the snippets were short) to satisfy, but it nicely created a mood. Still, it’s a shame the characters didn’t seem to learn a bit from the weekend … it would have taken some of the bitterness away and made the show not feel so down.
(This review is for a performance that took place on January 25th. It continues through February 15th.)