No, that’s not a suggestion for how to beat a double-dip recession. Viv Nicholson, the notorious football pools winner who vowed to “spend spend spend” and ended up broke is not, perhaps, the most likely subject for a musical. Spend Spend Spend, though, playing at the Lowry this week in a production directed by the reptilian but talented Craig Revel Horwood, is a triumph. It’s gritty, funny, powerfully moving, and probably the best time I’ve had at a musical this year.
It’s also possibly the best successful British musical that nobody’s ever heard of. It played at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 1998, then in the West End two years later (in a production starring Barbara Dickson). It ran for about a year in London, toured briefly, then – aside from occasional productions by ambitious amateur groups – dropped off the face of the earth.
One reason for that, certainly, is the subject matter. It’s a thoroughly downbeat story – rags to riches to rags, with physical abuse, alcoholism and bereavement thrown in along the way to lighten things up a bit. Nicholson had, essentially, one moment of great good fortune in a lifetime spent struggling, and it wasn’t winning the pools, it was meeting her second husband. She and her husband were not psychologically equipped to handle the massive change in their circumstances, the money catapulted them out of the place where they lived but did not in itself grant them social acceptability anywhere else, and there was, in 1961, no counselling or support available to people in her position. Equally, while Nicholson’s is a brutally sad story, it’s very difficult not to judge her on some level, and judge her harshly. Brash, loud, coarse, outrageous and sometimes thoroughly foolish, she was at least partly the architect of her own downfall, and she’s not necessarily the easiest person to find sympathy for, despite her awful upbringing.
And then there’s the cast recording question. Musicals survive, as much as anything else, via their cast recordings. The cast recording isn’t just a document of score and a production, it’s a marketing tool – it’s the primary means via which people who have not seen a particular show will discover the music for themselves, and there appears to be a direct correlation between the easy availability of a cast recording of a musical and a show’s ability to gain subsequent productions once the initial run in London/New York/wherever has been concluded. Spend Spend Spend does, in fact, have a cast recording – it’s just that it’s very nearly impossible to buy it. The recording – of the London production – was not financed by a record company, and no deal was ever made with any record company to distribute it via the usual channels. It was available for sale in the theatre during the latter part of the London run, it was available for sale in the theatres where the first UK tour played (that’s how I got my copy) – but those are the only places it’s ever been for sale over the counter. It’s not on Amazon, it’s not in iTunes, it’s never been in any record shops, and there are no copies for sale at performances of the current production. It sometimes shows up on eBay, where its rarity means that it goes for prices that would preclude anybody buying it out of casual curiosity. The obscurity of this recording, of course, is all the more bizarre given that Barbara Dickson, the above-the-title star of the London production, is a major recording artist who has sold more records over the past 40 years than pretty much anyone else working in musical theatre in Britain (granted, she doesn’t actually work in musical theatre very often). Whatever the reasons why the creators of Spend Spend Spend and the people who financed the recording, whoever they were, failed to make a distribution deal for the album, that failure can only be regarded as a spectacular own goal.
The thing is, the show’s writers – Steve Brown and Justin Greene (Brown wrote the music and they both wrote the book and lyrics) – have done, mostly, a brilliant job. The show puts two Viv Nicholsons on the stage – the present-day Viv, a grandmother who works in a hair salon, and the younger Viv, who is rocketed through a sequence of events that she cannot hope to control. We see the older Viv wince at her younger self’s foolishness, then wince again as she keeps on making the same mistakes. It’s a clever, effective means of gaining sympathy for a potentially unsympathetic character without ever begging for it, sentimentalising her, making fun of her or rewriting history, and the show packs a surprising emotional wallop. The score, too, is very, very strong, and distinctively northern (the mournful sound of brass bands is threaded all the way through), with one musical sequence (you can’t quite call it a song) that’s as good as anything I’ve ever seen. That would be “Scars of Love”, halfway through the first act. Older Viv recounts the story of her first date with the love of her life, Keith Nicholson, the man who became her second husband. We know that Keith Nicholson died in a car accident in the mid-60s; we watch Young Viv and Keith fall in love as Older Viv sings about her memories of their first date and her grief at his loss. The music is soft, folk-tinged and absolutely haunting, and the scene is quietly devastating. There’s no bombast, no big money note, no huge sweeping string section pouring syrup over the moment – just a sad middle-aged woman remembering the happiest night of her life.
In the theatre, the song is a solo, then a trio, then (briefly) sung by the entire ensemble, then a solo again. The only rendition available online is Barbara Dickson’s solo version of the song, seen on a chat show. While it’s gorgeous, it doesn’t convey the way the number works in the theatre. It does, though, give some idea of just how different this is from the love songs you usually hear in musicals:
Oh yes – this production. It originated at the Watermill in Berkshire, which has a tiny, tiny stage, so, yes, it’s another of those shows in which the actors double as musicians (with the exception of the actor playing Young Viv). This is not, generally, my favourite production concept, but it’s done, here, as well as I’ve ever seen it. Most of the actors play at least two instruments plus percussion, parts of the set (like a brass bar-rail) double as percussion instruments, the musical instruments are used by the actors as extensions of their characters, and you actually more or less stop noticing the gimmick five minutes into the show. More than that, the music sounds good (I’ve seen more than one production using actor-musicians where that really wasn’t the case). The ensemble performances, all of them, are very strong, but the two women playing Viv Nicholson herself – Karen Mann as the older Viv and Kirsty Hoiles as Young Viv – are both remarkable. Hoiles shows the way money and then the loss of money hardens the younger Viv without either short-changing the character’s essential foolishness or begging for sympathy; that’s a hard line to tread, and she doesn’t put a foot wrong. Karen Mann plays the older Viv as a walking open wound, simultaneously thrilled and horrified as she recounts the way her younger self lurched from disaster to disaster (at one point, referring to Young Viv, she says, “I could slap her one meself!”). The most moving moment in the play is Mann’s – near the end of the first act, as the radio announces the eight score draws and Viv and Keith begin to realise they’ve won, a look of sheer terror crosses Mann’s face. She knows what’s coming, and so do we, and she can’t stop it.
You can, in fact, see a taste of this production in a trailer posted on the Watermill Theatre’s website:
The tour only has four more dates booked – Leeds, Cheltenham, Richmond and Ipswich. It’s worth travelling a long way to see this, even despite the actor-musicians. It’ll be a long time before you see this show again, Mann and Hoiles are both astonishing, and there’s more genuine emotion in thirty seconds of this than there is in the whole of, say, Wicked (granted, that’s not saying much, since there’s more genuine emotion in your average TV advert for laundry detergent than there is in the whole of Wicked).
I may even have to go to Leeds next week to see it again, and I never do that.