Star rating: 4 stars ★ ★ ★ ★
After presenting Whistle Down the Wind and Loserville, the Union Theatre conclude its season of British musicals with Steve Brown and Justin Greene’s Spend Spend Spend (music by Brown and book and lyrics by Brown and Greene). Based on the book by Viv Nicholson and Stephen Smith, the story tells of Nicholson’s much-publicised £152,000 Football Pools win in the 1960s. After five years of reckless spending and the untimely death of her husband Keith, Nicholson found herself in dire straits with the bank and became the subject of grotesque tabloid exploitation.
The original production of Spend Spend Spend premiered at the West Yorkshire Playhouse featuring Rosie Ashe as Viv, although the West End transfer to the Piccadilly saw Barbara Dickson play the role and win an Olivier for her performance. Needless to say, the Union scales down the production values to a bare minimum, thankfully without sacrificing the energy and passion of the story. Brown and Greene’s book paints a refreshingly honest portrait of Nicholson, the victim of circumstance and arguably her own worst enemy when it comes to finances.
Where Brown and Greene really hit home is dealing with Nicholson’s relationships with men. Physically abused by her drunken father, Nicholson herself emerges as a sexually aggressive character, evidently with her father’s taste for alcohol. It’s a powerful dynamic that sees Nicholson get through no less than four husbands and yet she remains an eminently sympathetic character – undoubtedly a victim of circumstance but steadfastly refusing to play the victim. Brown’s lyrical score illustrates an uncompromising picture of life in a Northern town but lilting folk rhythms and Yorkshire charm are counterpointed with strong language and a darker subtext.
Director Christian Durham picks out this dark subtext perfectly, capturing Nicholson’s world as vividly as a Hogarth etching. This vision is complemented by energetic choreography from Heather Douglas, who ensures that the pace of this rags-to-riches-to-rags-again story never slackens.
Durham is blessed with an exciting ensemble of performers able to deliver the goods with notable leads Katy Dean as the impulsive Young Viv and Julie Armstrong as the older, pragmatic Viv. Dean’s development of Young Viv from simple ice cream girl to sexual predator is not only credible, it’s also very funny. The years given over to drink are equally powerful, culminating in the death of her second husband and the heartbreaking ‘Who’s Gonna Love Me’ – a poignant duet with Armstrong.
Armstrong, acting as narrator for much of the show, weaves a lifetime of regret and yearning into the story. It’s a remarkably human portrait and a gift to any actor, but Armstrong imbibes the role with such passion to make it her own, capturing something of the spirit of the Young Viv behind the Deirdre Barlow glasses. There is also strong support from David Haydn as Viv’s drunken father and James Lyne in his professional debut as Viv’s sweet but ineffectual husband Keith.
The Union has scored a palpable hit here, with a show that many may have missed the first time around. Brown’s knack for capturing tabloid Britain – a trick he admirably pulled off again with the sadly doomed I Can’t Sing! – marks him as one of the most important musical theatre composers working today. Hopefully, we will not have to wait too long before we see his work again in the West End.