Victoria Wood certainly knew what she was writing about when she created her first BAFTA-winning play in 1978. This confection of comedy, crooning and conjuring comes straight out of her own life experience.
It’s set in the dingy dressing room of Bunter’s nightclub on ‘talent night’. The stage is decorated with piles of dilapidated junk, two Hoovers and a rather care worn grand piano – which Claire Greenaway (in the part Victoria wrote for herself) proceeds to play with aplomb – whilst Tala Gouveia (in the Julie Walters role) sings Wood’s witty words. Meanwhile the male members of the cast, in blood red frilly shirts under their shiny tuxedoes, reflect her budding stardom with half a dozen hand mirrors.
It’s a funny and fantastical opening to what is otherwise a sharply realistic take on the nitty-gritty business of talent contests.
Wood competed in one herself in 1973. Whilst still at University, she lost to Marti Caine in ‘New Faces’. But she won the nation’s hearts and has remained a favourite for over 40 years. So the raw material for ‘Talent’ was already at her fingertips.
Julie and Maureen are great characters. They are old chalk and cheese school chums – the hopelessly star struck shop girl and her frumpy friend – who have somehow stuck together despite their polarised aspirations. Julie wants to be a star; Maureen a shrinking violet. Their common chatter is a real hoot. There are familiar northern reminiscences about only using the ‘other room’ on Saturdays, and how many Babychams guarantee a good night out. Wood’s rat-a-tat jokes fly between them like a demented shuttlecock. Think of Freddie Garrity’s string vest and nuns in stilettos and you’ll get the drift. The obligatory toilet jokes are much more original than you might expect, especially when there isn’t a decent toilet to be found.
It is admittedly a slight plot. It’s obvious from the outset that Julie’s rendition of ‘Cabaret’ (from, she carefully explains, the musical ‘Cabaret’) is going to be a flop, and the news that the club’s organist (played by Adam Buchanan) caused her to fail her ‘O’ levels (in a predictably biblical manner) is not exactly a revelation. But then Victoria was still cutting her theatrical teeth for wonders yet to come.
But she does spring surprises…also based on personal experience. Into the dressing room amble two club circuit comedy conjurers with a tea trolley full of joke shop tricks. (She was married, remember, to magician Geoffrey Durham). Brendan Charleson (as George) and Andrew Pollard’s Arthur (who’s just as good as Paul Daniels, but taller) rehearse their ridiculous routine to howls of laugher. Suddenly, twenty-something Victoria is no longer merely assembling a conveyer belt of good jokes, she’s proving she can write elaborate comedy stage business too. Abby Wright’s precision directing is at it’s very best in these wacky vignettes. Arthur’s interminable card trick left me helpless with laughter.
Of course Victoria’s later work is more mature; whose wouldn’t be. But as a hugely heart warming tribute to her origins, ‘Talent’ certainly does the trick. A more fitting memorial is hard to imagine.
Photo ; Andrew Billington
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