Talent, Menier Chocolate Factory, London
Thursday 24 September 2009
It's not often you see a magician with a male assistant," admits George, the pensioner conjuror who offers "comedy magic with banjo finale". But his wife, Nell, made a mix-up with the bookings and is "now singing at the Hard of Hearing Beetle Drive". We're backstage in the grotty dressing room of Bunter's Nitespot in Piccadilly, Manchester. We're also (as you may have guessed from that snatch of dialogue) in the world of Victoria Wood – the very young Victoria Wood.
She wrote this play for the studio at the Sheffield Crucible in 1978 when she was 25. But she was already a veteran of the talent-contest circuit, having strutted her comic singer-songwriter stuff at many a tatty nightclub and having won a heat of TV's New Faces. Julie Walters and Wood played the pair of friends: sparky, attractive Julie who is hoping to win at Bunter's with a rendition of "Cabaret" and her frumpy sidekick, Maureen, who is there to give moral support.
Now an out-and-out period piece, Talent makes for a peculiar evening in this attractively performed revival. It's directed by the author who has stretched the running time to 95 minutes with a prologue, some new songs, beefed-up roles for the men and a closing anthem that is pure Lancastrian Sondheim. It begins well with a garishly kitschy fantasy sequence in which Leanne Rowe's Julie, resplendent in a bell-bottomed cat-suit, returns to Manchester as a superstar – the little girl who once queued up at the chippy for scraps vindicated as the adult who held on to her dream. But if she's so big, why is her backing group the cheesy Triple Velvet Trio, who croon in cacophonously clashing turquoise-and-yellow dinner outfits? The whole potty illusion unravels as she starts to blather about how she's been booked for a summer season in Douglas – hardly Las Vegas.
We're returned to reality via Mark Hadfield's lovely drag turn as Mary, the club's elderly catering manageress. Oddly, spirits slump a bit when we get to the play proper. Well, I say "play", but it's more a series of routines, inner-monologue ditties that put the perkiness in pathos and one-liners full of Wood's trademark Northern non sequiturs ("She wasn't used to ventriloquists, having been a nun"). And it's studded with so many references to Seventies popular culture that anyone under 40 would require a glossary to get the full force of the gags.
Suzie Toase is a delight as Maureen, but the whole love-starved frump/secretly unhappy glamour-girl shtick never moves beyond cliché. Nothing is properly developed – and not just emotionally. Early on, Julie has a pee in a plastic boater, the loo situation at Bunter's being dire. You wait for a drenching slapstick pay-off – but in vain. Given the play's nightclub-restaurant setting and given the foodie Menier venue, it's ironic that, dramatically, Talent is all gong and no dinner.
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