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SHANG-A-LANG – King’s Head Theatre, London.

shang-a-langThat Shang-a-Lang is being advertised with the stark warning “NOT A MUSICAL. DOES NOT CONTAIN ABBA. NOT SUITABLE FOR CHILDREN” signals how much its author Catherine Johnson’s biggest hit – the musical colossus Mamma Mia! – overshadows her other, very different, work. It also demonstrates how that show, and similar jukebox musicals, have changed our expectations: these days, it’s hard to name a play after a song you might hear at a wedding without people assuming that it’ll be a feel-good run through of familiar tunes and a good bet for a hen night. When Shang-a-Lang was first produced at the Bush Theatre in 1998, it’s safe to say that wasn’t the intention, and if you go to see this uproarious revival at the King’s Head hoping for the warm glow of Mamma Mia’s Greek Island, finding yourself instead off-season shivering in a cold chalet in the Minehead Butlin’s might prove to be a bitter disappointment.

However if you go in with the right expectations, you’ll be rewarded with a refreshing, funny and finally touching play. It centres around the 40th birthday celebration of Pauline, a single woman from Chipping Sodbury who is still hopeful of finding her true love. She’s come to Minehead with two school friends – the settled family woman Jackie and the raucous Lauren – to see their childhood favourites, the Bay City Rollers. Over the course of the weekend, they interact with two travelling tribute band musicians, the bitter and middle aged Vince and his young, priapic protegé Carl.

Though their trip is initially exciting, things falls apart as the three women dig up old emnities and adapt to new circumstances. Johnson has a good ear for realistic dialogue and the conversations between the women are believable, crude and often extremely funny. While the subjects of the jokes can be quite challenging, at no point do you feel like you are being deliberately being provoked, but instead just seeing an unvarnished realism. In this way it’s salutary in making a lot of the comedy on stage in London recently seem antiseptic in comparison.

As well as the humour, there is a great strain of pathos in Robert Wolstenhome’s production, helped by its vivid representation of being in a holiday camp. From Tom Woodward’s redcoat, who sets the scene by making well-worn banter with the audience as they come in, to the banging on the walls of their chalet whenever the characters raise their voices, the way the women are projecting of pleasure onto their tawdry surroundings is clearly felt and gets to the heart of the play. You also feel this in a scene where Pauline, affectingly played by Lisa Kay, is drunkenly trying to cuddle up to a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger on a crazy golf course – a moment that is simultaneously sad yet comic.

If there are drawbacks in this production, it is that it struggles in its more high dramatic moments – a climactic showdown between Pauline and Jackie towards the end seems strained and artificial in comparison to the easy comedy of the rest of the play. This though is a slight criticism in what is otherwise a triumphant production, and one which will hopefully mean that Catherine Johnson is known for something other than the excuse she gave to Pierce Brosnan to sing on screen.

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Reviewed 24/01/14

By Robbie Lumsden

 22nd Jan – 15th Feb 2014
King’s Head Theatre, London, N1. 

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