A change for the worse

The menopause is reduced to songs about hot flushes in a lightweight show

<strong>Menopause: the m

As the composition of the audience - 90 per cent female and 60 per cent grey-haired - testified, Menopause: the musical is something of a niche event. And right from the beginning, when a disembodied voice implored us to "put your mobile phones and pagers . . . on to vibrate!", it was clear that it is fully intended to be a jolly night out for the laydeez.

This "cult" show was born in Florida six years ago and is now running at various theatres across the world. To understand what it is about, simply deconstruct the title, because Menopause: the musical is nothing much more than 100 minutes of theatre purely constructed around the notion of jokey songs about the change of life. Twenty or so famous pop songs have had their lyrics parodied to deal with those problems that affect women at around the age of 50. Cue a lot of warbling about hot flushes, weight gain, night sweats, hot flushes (again), weepiness, forgetfulness, hot flushes (once more); indeed, the whole menopause shebang is thoroughly ironed out, dressed down, made up, made over and finally sent out into the night in a little black dress to a rousing rendition of "YMCA".

However, as Mamma Mia! so triumphantly proves, there's more behind a rousing musical than just the ability to thread well-known songs together. Neither character nor plot, nor even imaginative location, was on hand to raise MTM from the level of school skit, as it moved seamlessly from Sixties hit tune to Sixties hit tune. We were presented with an array of menopausal stereotypes - the ageing soap actress, the power woman, the earth mother, and a housewife from oop north. Since the plot never made it clear if these women were old friends or people who had just bumped into one another, there was no sense of any forged relationship or bonding experience. They simply spent their time singing about their hot flushes in parts of M&S (presumably for sponsorship reasons). We moved from Ladies to Lingerie, via Hats, Nightwear and Café Revive, in an inexorable circle of consumerism. It was a bit like Are You Being Served? without the wit.

The problem with the show is the subject matter, and yet not the subject matter. Clearly, the originators of MTM thought that the menopause was a shockingly original subject to bring to the stage. True, it is a largely undiscussed female experience, more covertly embarrassing than anything previously dramatised, even by the reasonably high embarrassment standards of The Vagina Monologues. But musicals can breezily encompass absolutely everything and anything in the genre, from the lives of the Mitford sisters to a futuristic version of The Tempest, so the comic shock value of singing about female hormonal change was never going to last longer than the first song.

Having stormed the bastions of politeness by holding the "M" word up high, however, the show really doesn't know what to do with its position. Rather than explore what the menopause means and why so many women thoroughly dread it, or really examine the emotional repercussions of what happens when women are no longer able to bear children, our four leading ladies merely continue singing pop songs about hot flushes.

Compared with Avenue Q, which examines the human need for love and community in the equally bizarre set-up of a children's TV puppet show, Menopause is woefully barren of ideas.

On the plus side, all the cast members can sing rather well, and some of the parodies are hilarious. Gloria Gaynor's anthem "I Will Survive", transformed to "I Am Awake", is delicious, and Su Pollard bewailing the shape of her legs in "My Thighs", done to the tune of "My Guy", is also a laugh. Indeed, for a single mute moment when Pollard inadvisably tries to put on a sexy black camisole over a baggy T-shirt, her face a combination of vulnerability and estrangement, the night seems, at last, briefly to reach its desired target, namely the state of Tired and Emotional.

For further info and booking details visit http://www.theshawtheatre.com

Pick of the week

Rafta, Rafta
Lyttelton Theatre, London SE1
The new play by Ayub Khan-Din, who wrote East Is East.

The Hound of the Baskervilles
Duchess Theatre, London WC2
Hilarious spoof from Peepolykus comes to London at last.

TAG . . . Me vs the City
Peacock Theatre, London WC2
Hip-hop dance theatre from Jonzi D Productions, starring performance poet John Berkavitch as a brilliant but obsessive graffiti writer.

Rosie Millard was previously Arts Editor for the NS and a Theatre Critic. She was the Arts Correspondent for BBC News for 10 years and is now a broadsheet columnist. She lives in London with heaps of small children, which may partially explain her love of going to the theatre.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover