Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Spend Spend Spend

Music by Steve Brown, book & lyrics by Steve Brown & Justin Green
Watermill production
The Lowry, Salford
(2010)

Spend Spend Spend production photo

Best-known as the harshest judge on BBC TV's Strictly Come Dancing, Craig Revel Horwood returns to The Lowry as director and choreographer of Spend Spend Spend!, a rarely-seen musical from 1998 based on the true story of pools winner Viv Nicholson from Castleford in Yorkshire who won over £150,000 in 1961—roughly equivalent to £5m today—and spent the lot.

The show begins in present-day Castleford where Viv is working as a hairdresser and is still known as the woman who won a fortune and blew it all. Fed up of all the questioning, she tells her story, and we jump back to the same mining town half a century ago, when Viv is sixteen and working as an ice cream seller in the cinema while her mother is trying to keep the family fed despite her husband spending every penny he can get his hands on on drink. Viv discovers sex and gets pregnant, then marries the father of her child, but she soon falls for the boy next door, Keith Nicholson, and ends up with him instead. Just as they have decided to blow their last £2 in the pub, Keith checks his pools coupon and finds he has eight score draws.

They blow lots of money on a spending spree and buy drinks for all their neighbours but resentments and jealousies start to bubble up. They move to the higher class neighbourhood of Garforth, but the residents there also do not accept them. A final tragedy leads Viv down a path where legal action is necessary to keep hold of her dwindling resources from the banks and the government.

The story is told as a series of anecdotes, linked by older Viv as a narrator, that just about cling together into something approaching a coherent storyline, but it's all a bit 'bitty'. There are some interesting scenes and some very funny moments, but any emotional depth is dissipated by the episodic nature of the whole piece.

This isn't helped by imposing the growing 'actor-musician' style on the piece, where the actors play all the musical accompaniment throughout the show. This can work well when it is integrated into the whole concept of the show, such as in Return to the Forbidden Planet, or when the show is about musicians, such as Buddy, but having actors wander around a semi-realistic scene waving musical instruments about just hampers their acting as they get in the way. To have a woman sat in the hairdressers with a clarinet between her legs just looks silly.

The songs are pretty unmemorable but they certainly work in the context of the show, while the lyrics range from funny right through to rather trite without ever being surprising or insightful, but as a whole it is a flawed but enjoyable show that isn't a must-see but is certainly worth a look.

The show does have some very strong performances that make it worth watching, not least from the stunningly good Kirsty Hoiles as young Viv who has to carry the whole show on her back, and does so effortlessly. She gets very good support from Greg Barnett as Keith, Graham Kent as her violent drunk father George and Jane Milligan as her mother Liz. Karen Mann is also very good as older Viv, but she does resort to some over-the-top arm waving as she emotes her frustrations at the actions of her younger self while standing alone at the side of the stage. The duet between the younger and older Vivs, though, is quite powerful.

In fact the small cast, for a touring musical, of just twelve actor-musicians work very hard and blend very well together. Revel Horwood's direction keeps everything moving at a fair old pace, but there are some stand-out moments such as the title song to end the first act with most of the cast in black leotards, fishnets and smudged make-up—surely a reference to The Rocky Horror Show's 'Floor Show'—and the opening dumb-show of act two as Susannah van den Berg as the barmaid precariously climbs onto a stool to chalk a welcome message to the pools winners. Diego Pitarch's set has some nice touches such as the recreation of a 60s Yorkshire pub that becomes Viv's bedroom and a few other things, but it all seems a little cramped on the Quays Theatre stage.

While not a great show, this is a very good production of an interesting piece of theatre that's actually really good fun to watch. If Revel Horwood's name brings Strictly fans into the theatre, they should certainly leave with smiles on their faces having had a good time.

This production was reviewed at the Watermill by Robin Strapp and in Guildford by Sheila Connor

Reviewer: David Chadderton