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A CurtainUp London London Review

My father says you will never get tarmac laid quickly under a Labour government.— Maureen
Suzie Toase as Maureen and Leanne Rowe as Julie
(Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
Victoria Wood has rewritten and provided new songs for her 1978 show Talent which has opened at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory after showing for a fortnight at the joint producer, The Old Laundry Theatre in Bowness-on-Windermere. Wood and her television partner Julie Walters starred in this show way back when but now Victoria Wood is directing and Julie Walters has become an international star.

Talent is a nostalgic look at entertainment in Manchester thirty years ago, laced with Victoria Wood’s inimitable deadpan, observational and quirky humour. I was surprised to see that Talent had been reviewed in New York because so many of the references are peculiarly 1970s British or even limited to the North of England. The jokey Babycham not grasped by our reviewer in New York is a sweet champagne perry, a pale imitation fizzy drink sold in very small bottles for the pub market, and not drunk by those with taste and sophistication.

Suzie Toase is the plump Maureen, the character originally played by Wood. She is the placid friend and foil to the glittery, jittery Julie (Leanne Rowe) who is taking part in a talent contest in the hope she will be "discovered" and make her name as a singer. Sadly for Julie the talent contest has been rigged by the owner of the club and the result is already decided by vested interests. Talent is set decades before television shows like The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent delivered stars and their stories to the nation. Julie starts the play as a very selfish girl, besotted with her own supposed singing talent and unkind to her friend but by the end of the play, we have seen a softer, sadder side to Julie as she tells us about the troubles she had as a teenager, pregnant and abandoned by her boyfriend Mel (Eugene O’Hare).

Talent opens with a terrible singing group of three middle aged men in bright turquoise velvet suits with bell bottomed trousers, yellow frilly shirts, platform shoes, bow ties and bouffant hair. They make you wish you were wearing sunglasses and had cotton wool in your ears. Dubbed Triple Velvet this absurd trio sing winding microphone leads around, the mikes covered in yellow sponge. These fashions look embarrassingly ridiculous and the act is very funny. Julie joins them in her psychedelic cat suit. Mark Hadfield gives us a fine cameo as Mary, the table organiser in the club, Bunters Piccadilly, whose routine is the organisation of the booked parties.

We switch from the pink ruched and swagged stage backdrop (described as luxury by Julie) to the seedy back stage changing room where the acts have to get ready. Here foodie Maureen describes her mother’s menus in detail while secretary Julie dreams of fame and fortune and layers on the mascara. They are interrupted by the magician George (Jeffrey Holland) and his male assistant Arthur (Mark Hadfield) standing in for George’s indisposed wife and they show us a few tricks. Their comedy dance routine, Morecombe and Wise style, is a delight. Here lounge lizard Mark Curry as the Compere sleazes up to both girls making sexual assignations with each of them using the same cheesy chat up routine. As he arranges to meet in his vehicle, on the menu is not coq au vin but cock o’ van! Julie talks about some of the stars she has met. Of Freddie Garrity of Freddie and the Dreamers she says she went off him because "he had a string vest". These jokes are an acquired taste.

Talent amuses for those who remember the original and if you are a fan of Victoria Wood you’ll probably love it for her particular style of comedy. For me, although I liked Suzie Toase’s gentle, wide-eyed Maureen, the show seems terribly dated and tacky.

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Written and directed by Victoria Wood

With: Suzie Toase, Leanne Rowe, Jeffrey Holland, Mark Curry, Mark Hadfield, Eugene O’Hare
Design: Roger Glossop
Lighting: Paul Anderson
Musical Supervision: Nigel Lilley
Musical Direction: Simon Beck
Sound: David Ogilvy
Choreography: Sammy Murray
Running time: One hour 35 minutes with no interval
Box Office: 020 7907 7060
Booking to 14th November 2009
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 24th September 2009 performance at the Menier Chocolate Factory, Southwark Street, London SE1(Rail/Tube: London Bridge)

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