Soho Theatre + Writer's Centre, London W1
Opened 27 July, 2001

Maggie Nevill's The Shagaround is not so much a play of two halves as two separate plays with the same characters and a continuous situation. They are so utterly distinct that I spent the interval of a preview performance at Soho Theatre seriously wondering whether I had mis-remembered the play I had seen in Southampton in May; surely the second act I seemed to recall could not continue from what had just been presented. But it does.

In Act One, there seems little more than straightforward fun to the story of G and her friends exacting revenge on her two-timing ex-boyfriend Matt (hence the title) by imprisoning him in a cubicle in the ladies' loos of the pub where they are all celebrating New Year's Eve. Sure, Matt becomes symbolic of all jilting men, as word spreads around the pub offstage and more and more women donate their tights to help tie the cubicle door shut, but principally it's just a romp.

In the second half, though, the more serious matters become, the more formulaic they also get, as we also have to listen to too-calculated debates on the nature and portrayals of love down the ages, with lines like "romance is for scriptwriters" and "we've dispelled the myth of the Other Half". All these most plonkingly profound remarks seem to be put into the mouth of Beth, and it's a testimony to the strength of Toyah Willcox's performance that the character loses little of her earlier engaging vibrancy (although a coyly self-referential Toyah gag has been added for the London run). It goes almost without saying that the ending is as downbeat as possible, and is also patterned so as to provide a poignant dramatic irony upon the opening moments of the play.

In retrospect, perhaps those worn-on-the-sleeve first-act references to Warhol, Dali and Patti Smith should have alerted us that earnestness was hovering in the air. Perhaps the monolithic misandry of Veronica Quilligan's Dilly should have signalled, as her facial and body language quite fail to, that the character was being set up for a narrative reversal. At least Diane Parish turns in a much warmer and better pitched performance as G than Cathy Tyson had done; Parish's G shares the agreeable jauntiness of Luisa Bradshaw-White's Lisa and works well with her mates, until Nevill snatches the plot away from her in the final minutes, leaving her stranded.

The script is more comfortable and, paradoxically, more potent when pretending that it has nothing much to say; its second act induces the same kind of apprehension as hearing a comedian utter the dread words, "No, but seriously..." before they inadvertently reveal just how little there is behind the laughs.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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