Way back in 1979, when punk and disco were the musical movements dominating nightclubs and Top of the Pops, a small nightspot called the Blitz Club opened up in London’s Covent Garden. It’s well known how instrumental the Blitz was in shaping the direction British music took over the following few years, inventing the subculture that became known as New Romanticism.
It’s also well documented that a pre-fame Boy George worked on the coat-check stand at the Blitz, but nobody ever wonders who took his job on when he handed in his notice and swanned off to seek stardom and fame with Culture Club. Well, Whatever Happened to LaLa Shockette answers that question, as well as many other questions you’d never thought of asking, and would be surprised by the answers to.
It’s a cabaret extravaganza dreamed up by Welsh actress and singer Lowri-Ann Richards, who as well as being recognisable from various Welsh language soaps such as Pobol y Cwm and Rownd a Rownd, was also at the very epicentre of the New Romantic explosion more than 35 years ago. You probably won’t have heard of her – as Lowri-Ann or her pop alter ego LaLa Shockette – but she was most definitely there, as her slideshow of celebrity snaps attests.
But how true some of the anecdotes she tells during the course of the show are is up for debate, and Lowri-Ann likes it that way. She mixes fact with fiction to concoct a fabulously entertaining and eccentric production that charts her showbiz life, from kissograms to motherhood.
The first half concentrates firmly on LaLa’s 1980s heyday, when she was a backing singer for top acts like Gary Numan, Visage and Pleasure and the Beast (look them up). As far as it’s possible to tell, all that is probably true. She even had her own band, Shock, which supported all the great acts of the day, such as Ultravox and Numan, and was in an early version of Tight Fit, the band which later went on to enjoy a smash hit with The Lion Sleeps Tonight. All that’s true too.
But when Richards teases with allusions to an affair with Numan, or inadvertently inspiring David Bowie, or being in an abusive relationship with notorious actor-cum-gangster Johnny Bindon, the audience is put on the back foot. Is she telling the truth, or is she massaging the facts? The truth is, everything she says could be absolutely true, just as much as it could all be a pack of lies. And that’s the tantalising beauty of the production. It feels like one of those juicy, gossipy autobiographies that “lifts the lid” on “the truth behind the lies” of one of the most hedonistic periods in 20th century pop culture. But it could all be completely fictional too. In many ways, it’s best not to know, because the magic lies in the doubt. You leave the show still wondering…
Richards is an experienced and well-honed performer. Act 1 sees her knock out her own unique renditions of Tubeway Army’s Are Friends Electric? (showing off some mean popping and locking skills alongside two young, handsome male dancers), Blondie’s One Way or Another (complete with head torch and searchlights) and Velvet Underground’s Venus in Furs. Lowri-Ann studies singing with Welsh tenor and West End vocal coach Jeffrey Talbot, and you can tell – she has an impressive range and control, demonstrated best by her cover of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights. That is not an easy song to sing (even for Kate, to be honest!), but Richards excels, both vocally and through the eccentric performance. For once, someone sings a Kate Bush song without making fun of Kate Bush. That, in itself, is refreshing.
Her choice of 80s tracks is well considered, and the highlights have to be her cover of Soft Cell’s mournful Say Hello, Wave Goodbye (the best way to end any show ever, surely?) and her melancholy version of Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes, a song she takes by the scruff of the ruff and makes her own. Beautiful.
The second half moves on from the 1980s to concentrate on the “whatever happened to” bit of the show. She alleges a cocaine habit, a period of rehab in the Priory alongside MC Hammer (“U Can’t Touch This? Well, I did!”), affairs with Marco Pierre White and Heston Blumenthal, an unrequited fascination with Delia Smith, and even a dalliance with rap music (to paraphrase: “They say rap was invented in the Bronx, but the Welsh have been doing it for yonks” – genius!).
Richards is stylistically adept too – she moves from the aforementioned rap (reassuringly unconvincing) to an amusingly embittered attack on Barbra Streisand (yes, she dares!) and even tackles music hall with the hilarious Only a Glass of Champagne.
But there are parts of this second half that don’t quite gel as well, notably the assertion that she dubbed the Welsh language version of the Teletubbies (the fact she dubbed Po and not the more obvious LaLa doesn’t quite pay off) and her sojourn on P&O cruises supporting Danny LaRue. It may well be true (and a little research proves that it is), but it’s just not funny or sensational enough to raise the smiles and titters of the earlier material.
Whether Lowri-Ann really did conceive her daughter with the deacon who oversaw Danny LaRue’s funeral (while spreadeagled on the altar) is just as debatable as whether she really did act as vocal coach for Linda McCartney, but the fact she became a mother is made unequivocal when her daughter Daisy Bell joins the stage to perform one of her own songs. Some might question the inclusion of Daisy Bell: is it a proud-as-punch mum giving her little girl a cheeky plug, or is it a perfectly valid part of the show because Daisy Bell is an important part of Lowri-Ann’s life story? You could argue either way, but if it’s good enough for Kate Bush to wheel her son Bertie out at live gigs, or Tori Amos to have duets with her daughter Natashya on her records, then surely LaLa Shockette can do it too?
The show ends rather abruptly by indicating that the show simply goes on, her story is not over, and that there’s always more to come. If even 50% of what Richards claims to have done in her life so far is true, then we’re certainly in for an eventful, exciting and downright naughty sequel show in 30 years time. I hope so, because Lowri-Ann Richards is a ball of crackling talent and energy, and LaLa Shockette doesn’t deserve to be retired just yet.