It’s hard to sell a play with anti-nostalgia sentiments to a nostalgic crowd, but this is exactly what Shang-a-lang ends up doing. Whilst Johnson’s Mamma Mia is a West End musical equivalent of an Abba-themed hen party, Shang-a-Lang is like taking disco enthusiasts for a boogie and then telling them they’re all idiots and leaving them stranded in a parking lot. Although this could have been used to devastating dramatic effect, it resulted in being simply unconvincing.
The play sees the heroine, Pauline, turning 40, as she and her two best childhood friends head to Butlins for a 70s-themed weekend. Confronted with the reality that they’ve been growing apart leads to a multitude of tantrums and tears, particularly when two male musicians are added to the mix. There are songs that everyone knows and loves throughout, with many audience members singing along between scenes to the likes of the Bay City Rollers (of course), James Brown and, bizarrely, Fatboy Slim. The tone is set from the start, with a Butlins Redcoat welcoming us to the show, making (terrible) jokes with the audience, and shimmying his way through set changes. Indeed, the best parts of the show are the numerous dirty jokes – occasionally overly and deliberately crude, but entertaining nonetheless.
However, this opening gambit and lowbrow tone is entirely at odds with the play itself. As well as centring around friendship and nostalgia, this is a tale of a middle-aged lady looking for love. This is a woman convinced that if she doesn’t find the man of her dreams at her 40th birthday in Butlins then she will never be happy ever. I’m barely exaggerating. Pauline’s emotions (which are brilliantly portrayed by Lisa Kay) are extreme and highly repulsive, with a desperation that is uncomfortable to watch, particularly as it is apparent that she’s not entirely joking when she and her friends say that no one will ever compare to her first love – Woody from the Bay City Rollers.
Had this been a gritty look at childhood heroes and friendships, middle age, notions of romance and one night stands, this could have worked. Every character is detestable in their own way, and had they dispensed with the overarching campery, they would’ve been much more believable characters too. But the sentimental 70s songs and costumes, the (occasionally funny) combination of slapstick, visual humour and cheesy jokes and attempt at some kind of final moral triumph is at odds with this – and as neither element of this split personality is used to its full potential, we are left confused rather than uplifted or even, conversely, betrayed. Despite some strong performances (albeit dodgy accents), Shang-a-Lang packs no emotional punches, and also lacks the ‘doo wop be dooby do ay’ to leave you ‘dancing the night away’.