Back in the days when boys became bands without the unwelcome attentions of Louis Walsh, or girls sang aloud without a televised vote – young Victoria Wood penned a simple, funny and sweet piece for the Sheffield Crucible based on her own experiences backstage in a provincial talent show.
Revisiting it thirty years later, she freely admits she had to explain a lot of the references to the cast, so it’s not surprising many of the jokes had to be audibly elaborated by the older audience to its younger boyfriends during last Thursday’s first performance at the Menier. There is hardly a gay bar in London in which you couldn’t hear someone ‘doing’ a Victoria Wood sketch, and for the previews they were out in force, and lapping up the familiar comic lines.
Asked to comment on her friend Julie Walters’ appearance in “Mamma Mia”, Wood explained to the Daily Mail that musicals ‘really weren’t her thing’ – which may have been tact as Walters was uncharacteristically dire, but also disingenuous since Wood recently wrote ‘Acorn Antiques the Musical’ with a swathe of pastiched production numbers. For ‘Talent’, the musical additions are modest parodies of cheesy cabaret songs which mostly serve to give the male cast members an opportunity to perspire copiously in velour suits with polyester ruffles.
Wood appears to have cast this production with a number of old friends – Jeffrey Holland, once the comedian Spike in Hi-de-Hi is amusing as a pensioner magician, but former Blue Peter presenter Mark Curry rather less convincing as the randy compere of the rotting Bunters night club.
It’s like an explosion in the comedy section of the BBC archives, or at least in the skip where they throw the stuff they don’t use any more.
The stronger casting is in Suzy Toase playing the role created by Wood, and the ever reliable Mark Hadfield doubling a magician’s assistant and the night club’s catering manageress in the funniest segment of the show when she organises the table allocations. Both these actors excel at deadpanning the flat northern inflections of Wood’s material and illustrate both her easy facility with the language, and its ultimate failure to satisfy.
To genuine Lancastrians, the camp non-sequiturs of Wood’s dialogue “she was going to be a nun but they kept having tomato soup and she lost her vocation” are routine, being heard on the bus from Bury to Bolton every day of the week, and Wood’s original skill was to spot the patterns and write it down. Custard creams aren’t inherently funny, but when suggested by a northern housewife as a more palatable alternative to oral sex, it gets a laugh.
Whilst she has undoubtedly become a ‘national treasure’ through sketches and sitcom, comparison with more structurally capable dramatists like Alan Bennett are inevitably disappointing. In fact, the way Christopher Luscombe’s recent production of Bennett’s ‘Enjoy’ outshines ‘Talent’ despite the fact they were written at similar times, reflect on both Wood’s script-updating and directing skills.
Sometimes, Talent alone is not enough.
Talent continues at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London Bridge, until November 14th. Tickets £20-25. Runs 90 minutes with no interval and no late admissions.