Writer: Victoria Wood
Director: Paul Foster
Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre commissioned the original production of Victoria Wood’s early play Talent in 1978, centred on the relationship between two friends, one of whom has entered a talent contest in a rundown nightclub. It subsequently transferred to London, and also became a television production starring Victoria Wood and Julie Walters. Four decades later, Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre has re-opened after the pandemic lockdown with a re-heated version of the original.
As the socially distanced audience filter at prearranged intervals into the theatre, cheesy 1970’s pop music (David Essex, Legs and Co, The Bee Gees) plays to set the tone and time signature for what follows. The stage is draped in shimmering gold foil cloth which is soon scooped skywards to reveal the tawdry backstage dressing room of Bunters Nightclub hosting its Friday talent night. A white grand piano on a significantly raised plinth overlooks the stage, and provides a precarious position for the accompanying pianist.
Once the “play with music” (as it describes itself) starts in earnest there are immediately recognisable Victoria Wood tropes. The musicality, the poignancy, the pathos, and above all, the wit, are familiar to several generations reared on her TV shows. The humour and social reference points are unashamedly northern, but there are also allusions to a wider cultural hinterland, in particular through lead character Julie’s choice of the song Cabaret as her showpiece rendition. Sally Bowles meets Bolton.
Throughout the show are gems that could have come from any of Wood’s shows across the years: “You’ll never get tarmac laid quickly under a Labour government”; “She had red hair and matching legs”. The inventiveness continues in the song lyrics rhyming “nipple” and “raspberry ripple” and “impinge” and “cringe”. Victoria had a metaphysical poet’s ear for the yoking of dissonant images. The physical humour is sometimes less successful, as when Julie is obliged to pee into a plastic hat for lack of more appropriate facilities.
The setting is kept simple and flexible. Anyone who has spent time in a provincial green room will recognise the shabby facilities, and detritus from former glories which clutter the backstage zone. Lighting is used sparingly and sensitively, and the production is stripped back to its 1970’s bare bones. Special effects? Even the avocado telephone has a circular dial.
The performances of the entire cast are spot on. The heavy lifting is done by female leads Jamie-Rose Monk and Lucie Shorthouse, who rarely leave the stage; but the male cast members all have strong roles and fully punch their weight. They flesh out the chauvanistic background that Julie and Maureen have to negotiate to get by. Full credit to Richard Cant, as Arthur, for making such a memorable fist of what might have been a cameo role, as the magician’s deputy assistant. He is always on point.
The cast’s singing was worthy of prime Victoria Wood material: Not musical theatre, not shallow pop, but if Noel Coward had been re-born in Prestwich as a woman in the 1950’s he would have been proud to lay claim to some of these gems. Morrisey was apparently so attracted to one of the show’s more memorable rants about teenage sexuality (I Wish I Was Fourteen Again) that he adapted its lyrics for a song by The Smiths.
In the national pantheon Victoria Wood is close to the late Queen Mother, so there can be no criticism of the material; and the production and performances deserve generous praise. So the underlying question must centre on the relevance of a revival of a 1978 play, complete with all its cultural references and social attitudes, in 2021. Does it tell us anything about our own society or is it no more than a time capsule unearthed to provide a snapshot of a remote past that we have moved on from?
While this play might once have been a reflection of its own time, and Victoria Wood’s early experience of the talent show regime, perhaps it might now challenge us to question how far attitudes have fundamentally changed since the Bay City Rollers wore tartan. The show maintains a fraught balance between hope and despair throughout, and in doing so possibly better reflects the messy reality. But the ensemble finale gives the trump card to positivity, and the lights fade to the uplifting strains of Rose Royce’s 1977 classic Wishing on a Star.
Runs until 24th July 2021