Talent @ Menier Chocolate Factory, London

cast list
Leanne Rowe, Mark Curry, Mark Hadfield, Jeffrey Holland, Eugene O’Hare, Suzie Toase

directed by
Victoria Wood
If it werent for the performance of Suzie Toase, this revival of Victoria Woods 1978 play might be veering near one star territory.

Fortunately Toase has a very expressive face and is able to make much of very little. This is a good thing as she has been given very little to work with in this odd, plodding production.

Talent has been dragged back on stage by Wood herself. The revival, which previewed at the Old Laundry Theatre in Bowness-on-Windermere before moving to the Menier, has been tweaked by the author. Some new songs have been added, some of the supporting characters have been beefed up and the play has been given a new musical prologue.
Its easy to see why the both theatres would have jumped at the chance to stage this piece of Woods writing past. Shes one of the funniest women Britain has produced thats not in question but this stilted play feels very much like an early work; its thin, only patchily amusing and overstays its welcome even at only 95 minutes.

Toase plays the doe-eyed Maureen, the dowdy, port and lemon-swigging friend and provider of moral support to Julie, an aspiring singer who has entered a talent contest at Bunters Nitespot, a shabby cabaret club in Manchester that makes a big deal of its Hawaiian ham platters.

The production opens with a garish sequence in which a paisley cat-suited Julie dreams of being a famous singer (her fantasies providing a nice contrast with the global conquest envisaged by the average X Factor contestant). But though this sequence provides a degree of context, it doesnt really prepare the audience for what is to come.

Following this musical opener, the scene shifts to a rather grotty backstage area at Bunters where Julie is getting ready for the contest and the rest of the play takes place in this space. The two friends encounter a series of dubious men: a magician (Jeffrey Holland) and his hapless assistant (Mark Hadfield), one of Julies ex-boyfriends (Eugene O’Hare) and a sleazy talent show host (Mark Curry). At one point, needing to pee, but put off by the state of the ladies loo, Julie is forced to relieve herself in a vaguely amusing manner. The whole thing is very gentle and meandering and plot-less and then all of sudden it finishes with a bit of a song.

There is some reasonably amusing dialogue but there are real gaps between the laughs, and even when they come, theyre only chuckles not deep belly-laughs. Everything is marinated in 1970s pop culture references that were obviously relevant at the time but feel a bit excessive now. There are only so many references to Cherries Jubilee and Babycham and avocado-as-a-delicacy one can take.

The supporting cast are pretty strong, particularly Hadfield in his two roles as the clubs long serving catering manager and as the sweaty magicians assistant, and Leanne Rowe is perfectly fine as Julie, but theyre all hampered by a play which hasnt aged well despite Woods efforts to prod and poke it into shape. It would have been better for all, the audience included, if shed left it back in the 70s.

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