The performance of Shang-A-Lang which I attended in the Minerva Studio is the first time I can ever recall seeing a show in either this or the main house at Chichester which failed to get a single clap at the interval. This was not, I am sure, a comment upon Andy Brereton's production, which is never less than solid, but upon the relationship between play and audience.
Chichester's theatrical constituency tends towards the middle-aged (at least) and comfortably middle-class. I do not say this sneeringly, but simply to point out that perhaps Catherine Johnson's play about a trio of former teenyboppers from Somerset who celebrate the fortieth birthday of one of their number by going to a 1970s weekender at a Butlin's camp might not speak heart-deep to that many of the viewers it is likely to get here. Scarcely twenty per cent of the audience the other night were remotely within the generational catchment area of the piece.
What this means in practical terms is that Brereton's cast of five probably get less than they need to play off in terms of response. Many of the individual jokes get warm laughs (although others either pass the audience by completely or get a shocked silence, it is hard to tell which), but as persistently disappointed birthday girl Pauline, married best friend Jackie and drunken gadabout Lauren find themselves entangled with a couple of musos from the tribute bands, the actors are deprived of a sense of momentum, of growing engagement in the house.
This is a pity, as Johnson's play (first seen at the Bush in 1998) uses the gags to leaven a distinctly minor-key view of people in quest either of escape or validation in this unreal environment, looking either for a last chance to get their lives right or at least for temporary respite from all that is wrong. The mood is succinctly encapsulated when Pauline confronts Jackie about her one-night stand with musician Vince: "You had the perfect marriage" – "No, you said I had."
Gary McCann's set nicely combines the spartan institutionality of a chalet with the tackiness of the camp's public areas, and a stream of period music from "Devil Gate Drive" to "Play That Funky Music" does its very best to establish the mood. But in the end, the curtain-call clap-along to the title song falls flat with an audience composed largely of the parents of the age-group in question.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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