There are two surprising things about this light-hearted karaoke musical featuring a group of forty-something women who relive their glorious past on a groovy night out at a Milton Keynes nightclub: Firstly, that it was lovingly crafted by busy Milton Keynes mum (Louise Roche), who’s better known for penning ITV’s rural drama Where the Heart Is. Then there’s also the interesting, if slightly peculiar line-up, which sees Ex-EastEnders star Lucy Speed and Only Fools and Horses’ Gwyneth Strong team up with a winner of Channel 4’s Musicality, Donna Hazelton.
Underneath all the outrageous fun, disco glitz and sing-songs, the show makes a serious stab at exploring genuine female concerns such as unwanted pregnancy, depression and infidelity through five recognisable and distinct character types: Loud-mouthed but big hearted Carol (Strong); attention seeking Liza (Hazelton), who has relationship ‘issues’; bonkers but honest Anita (Cathy McManamon); and the dreary but reliable Kate (Laura Sheppard). Speed plays the wise cracking teen-angel Sharon, who’s definitely dead but not gone yet, who narrates the story and is the main reason they’ve all stayed friends.
Particularly pleasing is the conflicting duality of McManamon’s manic-depressive Anita, suddenly waning from predictable, softly spoken housewife into a mouthy, podium shouting protester, and the way in which Sheppard’s Kate emerges reluctantly from her shell, relieving a huge burden that overshadowed her marriage as well as her relationship with big sister Carol. Having said that, Speed’s performance is second to none, her not so angelic angel really holds the show together, giving it pace, insight and a wicked sense of irony - a perfect counter balance to all the emotional upheavals.
The musical numbers are emotionally well matched to the characters’ predicaments – top drawer disco hits “I’m Every Woman” and “It’s Raining Men” worked well alongside other influential but lesser known songs such as Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen”, rendered particular pathos by Sheppard’s shyness and gauche characterisation, and Barbara West’s “The Love of My Man”, sung instinctively by Cathy McManamon. Hazelton’s impressive vocal talents also effortlessly polished off Elkie Brooks’s bluesy “Don’t Cry Out Loud”.
Speed and Strong (what a combination!) safely steer clear of solos, joining in with the cast numbers. Generally, the individual performances have more precision and surety than the ensemble numbers, which are somewhat lacking in chemistry and vitality; not as punchy, gutsy and adrenalin pumping as one might have expected.
And although we – the ‘sisterhood of disco’ - are urged pre-show to ‘loosen any tight clothing’, bizarrely, all the buzz of a girls’ night out is sadly left behind in the foyer. By the end, nothing conclusive is reached, paving the way to further develop the characters in the proposed follow-up Roche assures us is currently underway.
- Emma Edgeley (reviewed at the Regent Theatre, Stoke)