Thursday, February 7, 2019

Review: 'The Half Moon Shania' at Vault Festival, 6th February 2019

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Shampoo are one of the most underrated bands of the 1990s. Best known for their 1994 hit Trouble, the band (Jacqui and Carrie) began as a Manic Street Preachers fan club and made up for a lack of musical ability with buckets of attitude. Sceptical? Check out their absolutely incredible video for second single Bouffant Headbutt and get back to me. So why am I talking about a largely forgotten 1990s pop-punk duo?

Well, because the G-Stringz reminded me of them as soon as I walked into the theatre (and especially when they began teasing me for sitting in the front row). The G-Stringz are Kerry (writer Cara Baldwin), Lola (Freya Parks) and Jill (Catherine Davies), the spiky teenage punks of Burnt Lemon Theatre's The Half Moon Shania.

The year is 1999 and we are in The Half Moon pub attending the make or break gig for the band.  The G-Stringz are sixth form pupils with dreams of stardom, dreams which might be realised if the talent scout from Diamond Records that's in attendance likes the show. They open with a slightly rickety punk cover of Man, I Feel Like A Woman, with their practised snarls and guitar moves papering over any bum notes.

As the gig proceeds, the songs are interspersed with vignettes through which we see how the three met, their thoughts on musical success and, for one of them, the decision on whether to accept a place in university or not. Their problems might be small and domestic, but the writing captures the way small things often seem like life and death when you're in adolescence.

I was pretty certain I was going to enjoy The Half Moon Shania from the moment I stepped into the room. I've been a huge fan of female-fronted punk for as long as I can remember: nursing a burning admiration not just for 90s pop-punk pioneers like Shampoo but for classic punk and riot grrl bands like X-Ray Spex, The Slits, Bikini Kill and Bratmobile. Why do I like them so much? Well, they're hugely important culturally and politically but mainly it's because women who don't give a single fuck screaming into a microphone to killer riffs are awesome.

But The Half Moon Shania isn't just surface level cool. The trio's onstage punk rock bluster is gradually revealed as an attempt to conceal their own vulnerability and lack of agency. After all, despite their aggressively independent image, they are hoping this gig will impress a talent scout (who they assume is a man). It introduces an awkward but interesting dissonance to the show, the band playing under an implicit male gaze and offering up their feminist rebellion for commodification by powerful men.

Late in the show, the danger of unaccountable men in positions of power and the vulnerability of the characters becomes explicit - and I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the subtext rapidly becoming text in the final moments. Here the show heads into some pretty serious territory and then doesn't have the time to explore the consequences - ending on a frustrating and ambiguous note. But then maybe that's the point.

While I'm being a teeny bit critical, I also think the staging leaves a little bit to be desired. While the thrust staging allows the actors to transition from performing a gig on stage to 'real-life' on the ground, it also divides the audience into blocks and prevents any communal excitement building. Perhaps it was just the audience I was with, but I've been to a lot of punk gigs and I would have killed for a bit of the sweaty chaos you find there. The show is only 50 minutes long - why not have the audience stand as if this was actually a gig?

But realistically there was no way I wasn't going to enjoy The Half Moon Shania. It hits so many of my cultural touchstones that I was won even before I took my seat. The three actors are great and the show has an appropriately ragged DIY edge to it that captures the thrill and freedom of punk. Recommended.

The Half Moon Shania is at VAULT Festival until 10 Feb. Tickets and times here.

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