Viv Nicholson was in tears at the opening-night curtain call mjim not sentimental sniffles, but the big, rolling tears of someone who has just watched the misfortunes of her entire life recreated onstage. Spend Spend Spend is a musical, and before going any further, I should say that it is the most glorious new musical I can ever recall seeing. It does not trivialise or exploit Nicholson's story for its own ends; even as the physical abuse by her father and two of her five husbands are turned into song, the sympathy and heart which pervade the evening are undeniable. The "yes, I've been through all this and I'm still here" defiance it projects is not a theatrical concoction, but the blunt Yorkshire directness of Nicholson's own character.
In the decades since her 1961 football pools win (£152,319 – some £3 million at today's values) and her declaration of intent which gives this show its title, Viv Nicholson has become an English icon of a particular kind, the kind which so often puzzles foreigners: the dazzling catastrophe. From rags to riches and most of the way back again within a few years, the story of this miner's wife from Castleford follows a classical tragic curve. The indomitability which Steve Brown and Justin Greene catch so adeptly, however, is not the smiling "Sing as we go" artifice of Gracie Fields, but the altogether more Beckettian grind of "I must go on – I can't go on – I'll go on."
None of which is to say that these are two and a half hours of grimness; at bottom it is a celebration of survival. Beginning with Viv's two-up, two-down upbringing – "Me mam is a martyr/Me dad's a non-starter", the show at once hymns and lampoons the stereotype of the proud Yorkshire miner in "John Collier". Viv and second husband Keith's pools win is plainly portrayed as an approaching doom, but then director Jeremy Sams cheekily flips over into another contemporary icon: once they have been presented with their cheque by a grinning Bruce Forsyth clone, the goods they set about buying (from a simple pair of gloves to van Gogh's Sunflowers – clearly a little exaggeration here!) roll across the stage on a Generation Game-style conveyor belt. After the interval, the spiral begins: dislocated between the world she came from, which no longer accepts her, and the world she has bought into, which will never properly admit her, it becomes apparent that the great impersonal forces will never quite allow Viv to cope. Even through this, though, the bluff mordancy continues, taking the mickey out of the suburban Shangri-La of Garforth or the sharkish creditors in "Dance of the Suits".
Barbara Dickson is magnificent as "Viv now", constantly on stage and commenting upon the fortunes and events experienced by Rachel Leskovac's chirpy, chippy Young Viv; as the eight score-draws on the pools coupon are musically counted out, Dickson's Viv clearly does not know whether to laugh with joy or cry with bitter hindsight. Sams's direction, as so often, strikes a wonderful balance between the emotional core of the show and an exuberant presentation. Spend Spend Spend fully deserves to join Blood Brothers as a working-class "up yours" fixture amongst West End musicals, both for its innate qualities and because of its too-long-denied attitude to Nicholson: simply, it pays her respect.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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