Girls in spandex singing ABBA may well be the last stand against the Taliban, but it’s also still just girls in spandex singing ABBA.
The lady who runs the local beauty parlour is terminally chatty and warm with a ribald sense of humour (apparently there’s some sort of unofficial collective of women who run local beauty parlours, all coached in these same traits), the sort of person who oozes homespun wisdom at every opportunity. Her life is a Dolly Parton song, complete with husband who done her wrong, pretty daughter with a knack for choosing the wrong man, good-for-nothing son shacked up with some tramp, and a laundry woman who consistently returns less bed linen than she collects.
Still, she doesn’t let any of this get her down, and is almost inhumanly good-natured. Recently, however, she worked herself into quite the huff upon learning that I was not planning to attend the latest show in town, the ABBA-inspired West End musical, Mamma Mia! She accused me of not supporting the arts in Pakistan and gave me a thorough finger-wagging as to how ‘the future of the country depends on you young people.’ If the future of the country depends on me singing along to Chiquitita, then I can confirm, we’re doomed. And it’s not just the parlour. I find myself avoiding large gatherings in general this week as the social pressure mounts to explain my lack of interest in Mamma Mia (“but it’s a huge production, in Karachi! I can’t believe you’re not going!”). I’ve tried to explain that unlike Mallory and Mt Everest, I can’t go just because it’s there. I like both theatre and song, just not together, like people who don’t care for their meat and vegetables to touch on the plate. My aversion to the genre is interpreted as faint hostility towards arts and culture, never mind that the popular musical is intended as pure spectacle and this one is as culturally enriching as people in spandex singing ABBA can be.
In London, the rising tide of musicals irks me no end, what with them being all over the place (can’t swing a Cats! without hitting one), driving out real plays and killing more modestly budgeted productions. In Karachi, the problem is quite different. Due to the sucking void that is the performing arts landscape, the mere advent of a sparkly West End show, largely starring amateurs with day jobs, takes on the significance of a major artistic event, with some quarters of the press receiving it as cultural salvation and the revival of the Pakistani stage. I’m sure even ABBA would have had the grace to blush. I first encountered Mamma Mia during its original run at London’s Prince Edward Theatre in 1999. I had been around the corner when the pub next to the Prince Edward, heaving with Mamma Mia pre-show attendees, was targeted by nail-bomber Daniel Copeland (oh, I so miss the good old days when things were blown up by Neo-Nazis), killing three. Since then I’ve enjoyed ten blissful Mamma Mia-free years till it reared its sequined head again as the closing film of the otherwise solidly respectable Kara Film Festival. And for the next fortnight, it’s out (and proud), showing at the capacious Karachi Arts Council.
There’s been much ado about how audacious the act of staging this production is in the first place, and this much is perfectly true. It’s a brave, brave thing to flash a low neckline on stage, or to erect billboards showing three girls dancing within sneezing distance of Hakimullah Mehsud and the Army of Darkness. But reading it as a sign of liberalism and progressiveness would be to entirely miss the point of how alienated the upper classes are from everyone else. (When asked if she was catering solely to the elite at Rs 1,500 a head, the organiser is purported to have said, rather brilliantly I think, “I bloody well hope so.”).
Incidentally, reports of the production are, by all accounts, great. The female lead has a strong voice, her co-star is RADA material, and the mere thought of live orchestras always unaccountably fills me with joy. Some five years ago, the Pakistani musical revolved around an inept Islamabad-based producer who, confronted with the dilemma of finding or training singers, hit upon the novel idea of using a tape recorder instead, producing shoddy yet depressingly successful show after show. My congratulations to the producer of Mamma Mia, who has drastically improved the standard of what is acceptable to a paying audience in Pakistan. The ratio of breathless reception to entertainment deprivation, however, remains, a matter of speculation.