Sit This One Out

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 28th May, 2012

I blame Mamma Mia. I blame We Will Rock You. I blame them for the spate of ‘jukebox musicals’ in which pre-existing songs from the hit parade of yesteryear are strung together by the slenderest plot. I blame them for keeping new musicals out of production. These things are money-spinners and much less of a risk than something new and original. What does the audience get from them?

The performance began not with an order to switch off our mobile phones but with an invitation to sing along. People were reluctant to take up this offer at first – but after the interval, with vocal tubes lubricated with half-time libations, the crowd of mainly white-haired wrinklies, opened their throats to warble “Why must I be a teenager in love?” The songs, by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, are largely familiar – I would like to point out they were already oldies by the time I first heard them.

The plot could fit on a Rizla paper and still leave plenty of room. It is 1963. Blonde would-be slut Jennifer (Hannah Frederick) takes her younger sister Marie (Megan Jones) away from the drudgery of Luton for a week’s caravan holiday in glamorous Lowestoft. There they meet American soldiers from the nearby army base. Marie, sweet 17 and never been kissed, embarks on a romance with Curtis (Jason Denton) despite opposition from her sister, his friends and superior officers. He is “coloured” you see, and in 1963, the “coloureds” had a hard time of it, especially in the States. While most of the dialogue serves as introduction to shoehorn in the next song, there are also awkward historical factoids to provide context, lines that could have been lifted directly from Wikipedia. It feels awkward and clunky. When the dialogue is not setting up the next number, or making a clumsy attempt at social commentary, it is riddled with blatant product placement, all in the name of nostalgia. Products and shops from this bygone era are mentioned, all to elicit laughs of recognition from the dewy-eyed audience. I found the whole thing a cynical and manipulative exercise. The script is by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran (Birds of a Feather) and offers nothing in the way of character development.

Three women in the row in front were swaying in their seats and singing along (when they weren’t texting or checking their Facebooks) and when the plot reached the inevitable reunion of the stars-and-stripes crossed lovers, they oohed and aahed and applauded. The granny seated to my right leaned towards me and with a nod in their direction, muttered in my ear, “Sad lives.” That cheered me up.

The performers are all multi-talented, singing, dancing, playing instruments and all the rest of it. The songs are superb – especially when performed a capella. The final, choral rendition of the titular number was especially good. Everyone seemed to love it – apart from my neighbour and me – and so I suppose this type of show has a place. People want to escape. That’s always true in hard times. This piece of cosy nostalgia seems to do the trick. It’s just not for me, I suppose.

But consider this: if the market continues to be flooded with jukebox shows and revivals of old classics, what will the next generation have to feel nostalgic about?

Meanwhile, I’m off to pen my own money-spinner, exploiting the songs of Justin Bieber… I’ll be richer than Croesus.

About williamstafford

Novelist (Brough & Miller, sci fi, historical fantasy) Theatre critic and Actor - I can often be found walking the streets of Stratford upon Avon in the guise of the Bard! View all posts by williamstafford

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