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Catherine Johnson - Shang-a-Lang, Mamma Mia! and fringe theatre

“What's gallus?” Catherine Johnson asks, unprompted. The writer behind ABBA-based hit musical Mamma Mia! is contemplating how one of her characters for her earlier play, Shang-A-Lang, has just been described to her by the team behind Rapture Theatre's touring revival, and isn't quite sure how it translates into her own west country patois.

When it's explained to Johnson that somebody who is gallus is someone with attitude, swagger and cheek in abundance, it seems to hit the spot.

“That's Lauren,” Johnson says of one of three middle-aged women in the play who go on a bender at a 1970s revival weekend at Butlin's holiday camp, where a Bay City Rollers tribute act are headlining. Over the course of the weekend, Lauren and her pals, Jackie and Pauline, have assorted epiphanies as they encounter a couple of equally ageing rockers.

“I'd been thinking about writing a play set in a holiday camp for some time,” Johnson explains about the roots of Shang-a-Lang, which first appeared at London fringe theatre The Bush in 1998. “I'd been to Butlin's in Ayr for a cheap holiday, and then my sister went on one of these 1970s weekends, came back and said that's what you've got to write about. I mean, tribute bands, what's not to love?”

Johnson duly went on a reconnaissance expedition to Butlin's in both Bognor and Minehead, with then Bush artistic director Mike Bradwell in tow.

“Mike bottled out after a day and went home,” Johnson says of the man who championed her writing. “But we did see a version of the Bay City Rollers, Les McKeown's version, I think. We also saw The Sweet, not long before [singer] Brian Connolly died, and we saw Desmond Dekker, who was amazing. It isn't just booze, sex and vomit, you know. You can have a good time as well.”

Johnson's career as a playwright began when, inspired by the likes of Jim Cartwright's play, Road, she entered a play-writing competition run by Bristol Old Vic and HTV West. Johnson won this with Rag Doll, a play about incest and child abuse which was staged at Bristol Old Vic in 1988, and subsequently filmed for television.

“Success for me was writing something from start to finish,” Johnson says, “but I won the competition, and there's nothing better than being told that you can do something.”

Johnson sent her next play on spec to The Bush. Bradwell's staging of it began their long working relationship, while Johnson penning three more plays for Bristol Old Vic inbetween writing for television on the likes of Casualty, Byker Grove and Band of Gold. It was Shang-a-Lang and, especially, Mamma Mia!, however, that put Johnson squarely into the mainstream as much as the book that Shang-a-Lang was partly inspired by, Helen Fielding's novel, Bridget Jones' Diary.

“It seemed to be saying that if they haven't got a man as an appendage, all women are useless,” Johnson says. “Me and my mates at school were all rampant feminists, or so we thought, even though we all secretly wanted boyfriends, but I was annoyed by the phenomenon of Bridget Jones.”

Johnson hasn't read Helen Fielding's new Bridget Jones novel, nor is she likely to. She is deeply amused, however, by one of the book's plot-twists which she's been unable to avoid.

“My God, she's killed off Darcy,” Johnson says dryly. “What a great thing to do. You've got to admire her chops for doing that.”

Johnson's play wasn't the first Shang A Lang to make it to the stage. Back in 1987, Clyde Unity Theatre produced a play by Aileen Ritchie of the same name which was also about a group of Rollers fans. While it is unlikely that Johnson had heard of Ritchie's play, the surface similarities between the two demonstrate just how much the Edinburgh sired boy-band affected a generation's collective psyche.

This is also the case with jukebox musicals, a trend which Mamma Mia! pretty much kick-started. While some remain snobbish about the commercially-minded melding of contemporary narrative with already existing hit records, the term dates back to the 1940s with Judy Garland vehicle, Meet Me in St Louis, and one could cite films such as Rock Around The Clock and Beatles flick, A Hard Day's Night, as fitting into this category. As with the craze for rock and roll musicals such as Buddy and Return to the Forbidden Planet, the current wave of jukebox musicals has its roots in fringe theatre.

Johnson's relationship with the Bush is testament to this, as is the success of Sunshine on Leith, Stephen Greenhorn's Proclaimers soundtracked play which, like Mamma Mia! before it, was recently turned into a film. Again, like Mamma Mia!,and Shang-a-Lang, Sunshine on Leith is shot through with a common touch akin to a popular television drama, with the naturalism broken up by the songs.

“I get really annoyed when people talk about Dexter Fletcher's Sunshine on Leith,” Johnson says. “It was a stage play first, and it's Stephen Greenhorn's.”

As for Shang-a-Lang, that remains very much Johnson's.

“I was working on both Mamma Mia! and Shang-a-Lang at the same time,” Johnson remembers, “so they reflect each other. If I'd been doing a lot on Mamma Mia!, it was quite a relief to get back to Shang-a-Lang with Lauren, Jackie and Pauline and let them be as foul-mouthed as they liked. It's a play about friendship, and realising that the people who are your friends aren't necessarily the best people to be around after a certain time. They can hold you back. If I was to identify with any of the women in the play. It would probably be poor old Pauline, who's on her own and can't get a shag.”

Fifteen years on, Johnson retains a fondness for the play.

“It's like a gawky adolescent now,” she says. “but it was so much fun. After Mamma Mia! became what it became, that kind of became my identity. That was fine, because there was no point in denying that I wrote Mamma Mia!, because it brought me so many benefits, like getting to know the people who wrote all those wonderful songs, but Shang-a-Lang is still me as well. Now that it is a gawky adolescent I may be mortified when I see it again, but looking back at it now, it brings out the gallus in me.”

Shang-a-Lang, Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, Thursday-Friday; Regal Theatre, Bathgate, November 11th; Albert Halls, Stirling, November 15th; King's Theatre, Glasgow, November 19th-23rd.

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Catherine Johnson – A Life in Letters

Catherine Johnson grew up in Wickwar, near Wotton-under-Edge in Gloucestershire, where she was expelled from school aged sixteen. She married aged eighteen, but was divorced by the time she was twenty-four. Unemployed and living in Bristol with her first child, Johnson entered a playwriting competition run by Bristol Old Vic and HTV West. Entered under the pseudonym Maxwell Smart, Rag Doll won the competition, and was subsequently produced in 1988.

Boys Mean Business was produced by The Bush in 1989, and Dead Sheep by the same theatre in 1991, winning the Thames TV Best Play Award. For Bristol Old Vic, Johnson wrote Too Much Too Young (1992), Where's Willy? (1994) and Renegades (1995).

Shang-a-Lang was first produced by The Bush in 1998, with Mamma Mia! opening in the West End the following year. Since then it has been seen in more than forty countries, and was nominated for Olivier and Tony awards.

Beyond Mamma Mia!, Johnson wrote Little Baby Nothing (2003) for The Bush, Through The Wire (2005) for the Royal National Theatre Shell Connections, and Suspension (2009) for Bristol Old Vic. Johnson has written extensively for television, and is currently working on a major new project, as well as a novel and a new piece for the RNT Shell Connections initiative.

The Herald, November 5th 2013

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