I blame Slade. There had been seasonal pop records before (not least the classic Phil Spector's Christmas Album), but it was the Wolverhampton mob who showed us with "Merry Xmas Everybody" that one way to celebrate this festival is to make an almighty, joyous din. Hence the Christmas rock and roll show; hence Liverpool's Puss In Blue Suede Boots and Shane Ritchie's third visit to Manchester with his personal vehicle Boogie Nights.
Puss... ought not to work at all. The most recent song it contains, Kool and the Gang's "Celebrate", is twice the age of most of the young audience; other numbers come from Otis and Aretha, The Kinks and The Coasters... and, of course, Elvis. But writers and directors Mike Sherman and Tony Lidington have learnt Slade's lesson well, and know that the most important thing is enabling the kids to make a right old racket. Thus, pretty much every number is a clap-and-stomp-along production. (The youngsters, bless 'em, are a bit bemused by Hendrix's "Foxy Lady", but they recover admirably.) By the second half the house regularly gets to its feet for every song and cheers, boos or howls with laughter as appropriate at every line of dialogue or every move; to paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson, it was just after the interval that the high sugar dosages began to take hold.
In effect, this is zoo TV of the Saturday-morning kind onstage; in Adam Gibb, they even have a pretty-but-safe boyband-style scream-object. Nor do Sherman and Lidington ignore other aspects. The villain's big villainy is to genetically modify food; Scouse gags and phrases aplenty pepper the script (we are to greet the dame on her entrance with a shout of, "I can see yer, Nellie!"... think about it); I even spotted a Sophie Tucker joke of the sort which, thankfully, shot right over the youngsters' heads. Ashley Shairp's black and white set is a pop-art delight, and the cast of eight also make a fine rock and roll band. My only real reservation is that, in order to be heard over the rumpus, the actors really need to be permanently wired for sound rather than to be using hand-held microphones for the songs only.
Boogie Nights fulfils the same kind of function for grown-ups experiencing nostalgia for the '70s, but makes the mistake of thinking that big production values and a Village People medley can compensate for the flaw at its core. That flaw is Shane Ritchie, a man perhaps best known for conducting the Daz Doorstep Challenge between Danny Baker and Julian Clary (chronologically, not topographically, speaking). This is Ritchie's show; he knows it, and he makes sure that both we and the rest of the company know it. He likes to share a laugh, and so this becomes his "characterisation"; every speech to the audience and every other speech to another character is punctuated by a hur-hur-hur. He cannot act to speak of, and as a singer he can only belt; when he tackles Elton John's "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word" (scarred by big power-ballad drums), he sounds like Axl Rose, or at best Bryan Adams.
Female lead Sharon Benson has a wonderful voice, but seems a little bored by the proceedings here. Anachronisms litter the show, with many if not most numbers originating appreciably after the very specific periods in which it is supposedly set. And yes, of course this is a sniffy, critics' response to a show which the audience lapped up. But they deserve more; they deserve the care and consideration of Puss In Blue Suede Boots, but what they get is principally a bloke onstage who quite likes being onstage. Ho hum.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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