The talents that made the late Victoria Wood great shine through this, her first, flawed play. The setting is backstage at a rundown northern cabaret-cum-nightclub. Here, worldly 24-year-old office worker Julie (Lucie Shorthouse) prepares to enter a talent contest, which she hopes will boost her out of the mundane and into fame and fortune. Maureen (Jamie-Rose Monk), Julie’s unworldly, unfashionable, “big-boned”, sceptical former classmate, now workmate, chums her friend along.
It’s a classic Wood female friendship pairing. Their dialogue is Wood’s familiar humour-collage of the everyday: underwear (“Dorothy Perkins half-cup wired”), brand names (Babycham, Mivvi, Chesterfields), product descriptions and catch-lines (two-in-one when the ingredients list on a face pack concludes with a promise to, as the two women chorus, “Shut that pore!”).
So far, so sketch-funny. Paul Foster’s direction, though, fails to cover over Wood’s first-time playwright weaknesses. On a frivolous level, you cannot, in full view of the audience, fill a hat with pee, put it in a filing cabinet and then just leave it there. More seriously, the sexist, offensive attitudes and behaviours of Daniel Crossley’s sleazy compere and Jonathon Ojinnaka’s self-centred organist – along with the women’s responses to them – are not only dated, they are dramatically weak.
Why has the Crucible decided to stage this embryonic work – and in this 90-minute version, given that the subsequent TV adaptation (featuring Wood and Julie Walters) runs at a sharper, better-shaped 60 minutes (worth a watch on YouTube)? The reason given iis the fact that Talent first opened in this theatre’s studio in 1978, and that it “serves as a reminder of Sheffield theatres’ long-term dedication to championing exciting artists at the start of their careers, and amplifying new and evolving voices”. Surely the recently concluded two-week Together Season festival of new work by local artists was reminder enough.
Talent is at the Crucible, Sheffield, until 24 July