It is a world of mirror balls and knee-high boots. Of Babycham and Woodbines. Of cheesy magic acts and variety nights – a world the late Victoria Wood knew well, having cut her teeth in Birmingham folk clubs before landing her big break on the talent show New Faces.
In her 1978 play, written for Julie Walters and premiered at the Crucible, this is also a world she looks back on with a characteristic blend of affection and caustic eye for detail.
The setup is simple: Julie Stephens is a 24-year-old office worker who has passed the audition for a spot in a talent contest. Turning up at Bunters nightclub with the score for Cabaret, she and her less adventurous friend Maureen smoke away the backstage nerves, interrupted by a succession of fellow acts. For all Julie’s dreamy ambition, the scene is more squalid than glamorous.
In Paul Foster’s good-natured production, Lucie Shorthouse does a fine job, catching not only the rhythms of Wood’s deadpan delivery but also the bemused smile of the innocent outsider forever bewildered by human nature. She has an entertaining foil in Jamie-Rose Monk as Maureen, the part once played by Wood, her timid demeanour contrasting with the force of her voice in the show’s scattering of wry songs.
Janet Bird’s set of sawn-off boxes looks cluttered once the gold lamé fabric has been removed but, with its singed edges and remnants of advertising posters, adds to the tawdry atmosphere. Our age of instant fame has made the ideas familiar, but in 1978, Wood was ahead of the curve in her observations on the allure of celebrity and the seediness of a business that trades in glamour.
She also has darker observations about the sexual exploitation of women and girls, although in this pre-#MeToo era, Julie lacks the language to express these herself. As an underage schoolgirl, she was made pregnant by an older man. Now, as a wannabe star, she is propositioned for sex by a sleazy compere promising to help her get ahead in the profession. It is a slight play with an uncertain momentum, but it is testament to Wood that she could field such weighty content in so breezy a form.