Just over five years ago, in April 2016, Britain lost a unique and irreplaceable comedy voice with the untimely death of Victoria Wood. In addition to her brilliance as a stand up comedian and actress in both comedic and dramatic roles, Wood also scripted a number of plays and musicals for the stage and her very first attempt from 1978, ‘Talent’, is the subject of a revival at Sheffield’s Crucible during July.
The world of the late 1970’s northern working men’s club, is evoked by both the cheesy ballads playing as we enter the auditorium and the set design of Janet Bird. A golden cloak covers the stage and reaches up to a white grand piano perched high on a plinth, evoking the glamour of Liberace and 1940’s Hollywood. This is quickly revealed to be a grotty backstage with boxes of crisps and tatty, faded props, reminding us of the tawdry illusion that showbusiness often turns out to be. Walking wide eyed into this seedy world is Julie (Lucy Shorthouse), as a ‘little girl with a big voice’, she takes her first hesitant steps into the world of professional entertainment, entering a talent show in the hope of escaping a future of drudgery and boredom. Accompanied by her old school friend Maureen (Jamie-Rose Monk), they wait together in the dressing room, talking through their mutual hopes, fears, dreams and desires, whilst meeting characters drawn from the world of clubland in that era.
Shorthouse is hugely engaging in the role of Julie, bearing a striking facial resemblance to a young Wood, she draws out the innocent hope of her character easily. She combines sunny optimism it with an earthy understanding of what she needs to do to get to the top; ‘I don’t mind shagging him as long as he doesn’t have bad breath’, succinctly summing up her realistic world view! Her acting is matched by her vocals during several of the trademark Wood songs that litter the evening like unpolished diamonds, the best being ‘Fourteen Again’, a perfect paean to youth on the verge of hopeful adulthood. Monk is the perfect foil for this skittish dreamer, playing the dowdy, plump Maureen with a northern cynicism, juxtaposed beautifully against her actual lack of worldly experience and confidence. The comedic pathos of the scene where she is propositioned provided a rich moment in an evening where both leads showed their versatility and ‘talent’ to excellent advantage. The young leads were amply supported by a small cast with James Quinn and Richard Cant (George and Arthur) providing texture as the old school club acts, Jonathon Ojinnaka (Mel) as the cocky organist (and Julie’s uncaring ex-boyfriend) and Daniel Crossley giving a disturbing turn as the oleaginous, misogynistic Compere.
However, it is the writing that is the real star of this revival and Director Paul Foster shows his class by choosing to let the originality of Wood’s voice shine through every scene. She wrote the piece less than four years after breaking through on ‘New Faces’ (a progenitor of the equally ghastly X Factor and BGT), and both lead characters feel intensely autobiographical when viewed over forty years after the piece was written. We can see Julie and Maureen as two very different sides of the author, her later development as both actress, playwright and performer showcasing her intelligence and depth as well as the trademark linguistic humour. That trait is evident in virtually every line, I revelled in the references to ‘smoky bacon crisps and sausage liver spread’ and only Wood could use the word ‘mivvy’ with such relish! The delight of seeing glimpses of what her later, more mature writing would become, was a real treat, with glimpses of ‘Kitty’ in her references to ‘hatches in the lounge’ causing howls of recognition in the audience. Audiences raised on 70’s television delighted at references to catchphrases such as ‘Course you can Malcolm’ (Vicks nasal spray) and arcane 70’s TV personalities like David Nixon and Sacha Distel. Younger members will appreciate this humour having been raised on a diet of Peter Kay, who’s debt to Wood for ‘Phoenix Nights’ is particularly evident when watching this piece.
Overall, a great opportunity to see a superbly realised revival of the early work of a genius that was lost to the world too early.
Talent continues at The Crucible, Sheffield until 24th July. Further information and tickets can be found at https://www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk/events/talent-1
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 2nd July 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★