The menopause as the subject for musical theatre? Well, we’ve had the Vagina Monologues, so why the hell not? And following the sidelining of newsreader Moira Stewart by the BBC, purportedly for the crime of being over 50, there’s something rather endearing about the idea of a show that so determinedly counteracts the near invisibility that can affect women over a certain age. I just wish it had been, well, a whole lot better than this.
To be fair, Jeanie Linders’ admirably does-what-it-say-on-the-tin production has become a global phenomenon, playing to packed houses in cities all across America, Australia and Canada, its huge success down in part to word-of-mouth. It clearly works for an awful lot of people. And on the night I saw it, it was clear British women were equally taken with what it had to offer.
The schtick of the show is basically this: take some familiar songs of the 1950s and 60s, tweak the lyrics to include references to Prozac and night sweats, and season with a few rather weak dance routines. Oh, and because Marks and Spencers are supporting the production, so the adapted British version of the show is now set in one of their branches, with their logos all over the rather cheap and gaudy set. This is not just corporate sponsorship. This is M&S corporate sponsorship.
As basic and broad as the song parodies are, that’s nothing compared to the characterisation. The quartet of women include an aging hippy (Amanda Symonds), a high powered American career woman (Miquel Brown), a fading soap star (Samantha Hughes) and a timid housewife, played by Su Pollard, are played as stereotypes from start to finish with no attempt to develop them into anything more.
There’s also no story as such, just a succession of songs that allow the women to come to turns with the changes they’re going through and, because the show is American in origin, learn to love and respect themselves a little bit more.
Which of course is not a bad message, it’s just that nearly all the material is about the physical effects, the hot flushes, night sweats and so forth, rather than the other less tangible things that come with the menopause, such as the shifting way the world views you as a woman, and the emotional repercussions of going through ‘the change.’ (The issue of HRT incidentally never gets a mention either.) It all felt so superficial and ridiculously over-simplified; a shambolic and cynical piece of theatre.
Still, as I said, the show clearly worked for a proportion of its target audience. The packed theatre was full of women, mainly over forty but with a large number of daughters in attendance, and every mention of elasticated-waist trousers and cellulite drew huge appreciative laughs. It was impossible not to get a little swept along by all this enthusiasm. And yet it’s equally impossible to escape the fact that the show is only as popular as it is because there are so few other outlets for discussing this kind of thing, that for many women it’s clearly so refreshing to see such material portrayed on stage that issues of quality simply don’t come into it.
But the truth is that this is cheaply thrown together and rather cynical stuff, more than a little patronising in its assumptions and tone if I were a middle-aged woman I’d feel angry and embarrassed by the whole thing.