Stepping inside the Theatre Royal, Brighton on a frisky Friday night, I swear I got an immediate contact high from the fumes of Prosecco and HRT: I don’t think I’ve been to such a thoroughly good-natured gathering since the opening night of Banksy’s Dismaland last summer. About 90 per cent of the audience were women of a certain age – old enough to know better, but young enough to throw caution to the Aqua Manda-scented breeze should the fancy take them – smothered in sequins, lathered in Lurex and out for a good time recalling their Fruit Salad chew days through the medium of the era’s toppermost of the poppermost. I was proud to be one of them.
Though Jackie was launched in 1964 – by Gordon Smart, an ex-RAF engineer, for “go-ahead teens” – and folded in 1993, its golden years marked the time of my teens, from 1972 to 1979. At the start of the decade I was a shy provincial child who saw the sooty-eyed, storm-haired girls of the cartoon strips as unimaginably sophisticated; by the end of it, I was a leather-clad teenage reporter who saw them as hopeless hicks.
My colleagues at the IPC-owned NME delighted in telling me that Jackie was the product not of fevered London-flat-sharing teenage girls’ imaginations, as we readers had somehow convinced ourselves, but rather was cobbled together by a bunch of bitter, middle-aged men at IPC’s rival publisher D C Thomson. But cynicism can be a real buzz-kill, and for one night only I was happy to be wearing my short-sighted head.
People can be sniffy about jukebox musicals but in my opinion they are infinitely preferable to overblown and pretentious middlebrow stuff such as Sunset Boulevard, where the only slightly memorable refrain turns up every 20 minutes and you’re so desperate for a tune, you’re grateful for even a slight respite from the ongoing tedium. The songs here were a cracking selection, beautifully driving the plot – in which a divorcee, Jackie, is given advice from Jackie magazine by her teenage self – from the opener, “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted”, to the closing number, “I Can See Clearly Now”. Janet Dibley, who plays the eponymous heroine, can really sing, has a wonderful face that would be equally at home smoking a cigarette through an ivory holder or suffering over a kitchen sink, and was totally believable here as both the wined-up ex-wife and the starry-eyed senior sexpot. She is familiar from EastEnders (playing Lorna Cartwright), and the casting of the one-time Walfordian Nicholas “Dr Trueman” Bailey as her internet-dating love interest lent a pleasing air of parallel universes to the proceedings.
There were just one or two numbers – 10cc’s “The Things We Do for Love”, to be precise – that had Dibley and Bailey looking briefly baffled, the puzzlement on their faces indicating perchance that they were wondering whether death by strangulation or shotgun might be more suitable for their agents. However, the dirge soon died a merciful death and we were straight into the evening’s crotch-grabbing, air-punching, show-stopping number, T Rex’s “20th Century Boy”.
It was during this astoundingly lively routine – largely performed by a dry-humping youngster atop a bar – that the evening caught fire, and the sheer immortal, visceral power of the very best pop music made itself known in the building.
We were suffering something of a collective hot flush after that and the evening soon came to a satisfyingly non-syrupy close. You know you’re having fun when having your seat kicked rhythmically by the overexcited matron sitting behind you fills you not with annoyance, but rather with a further intensifying of that oceanic feeling. Looking at the gangs of happy, statuesque, singing women around me, wigging out in the aisles with my two bezzie mates, shouting back at the ensemble the words of “Tiger Feet”, I felt as though I really was living the teenage dream.
I always found it freaky to think that my grandmother was alive in Edwardian times, but the world before the internet and Islamofascism – rocked in the bosom of Cold War security – seems equally foreign now. I’d expected there to be a somewhat maudlin mood among the audience, but detected none at all; instead, the overweening feeling was one of relief, not just that we’d made it this far, but that we weren’t young now, in these desperate days. I left the theatre quite tipsy on just two gins, pleased I’d come through and looking forward to more. For inside this fat, fiftysomething, much-married matron, the go-ahead teen survives.
“Jackie: the Musical” is on tour across the UK until 30 July
This article appears in the 13 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The making of a monster