Spend Spend Spend! – New Wolsey Theatre

These days we’re used to the image of National Lottery winners collecting a huge cheque but, in the 1960s, attention was focused on the Saturday football results rather than lottery numbers. The chance of matching eight score draws kept many hopes alive. When impoverished Yorkshire couple Keeith and Viv Nicholson win £152,319 on the Pools (around £5million in today’s terms) their life will never be the same again. When Viv was famously asked what she was going to do with her new-found wealth she famously replied she was going to ‘Spend, Spend, Spend’ and, true to her word, that’s what she did.

Spend Spend Spend! the musical is a rags to riches and back to rags again tale following Viv’s life before and after her win. In musical form it’s something of a Northern folk opera; life may be bleak but that doesn’t stop Viv from dreaming of the high life and looking, mostly unsuccessfully it has to be said, for love.

Although based on Viv Nicholson’s own autobiography this is not an entirely sensitive portrayal, with the musical making no attempt to portray her as a victim, despite the hardships and violence she endures.

Steve Brown’s score draws on a wide musical heritage, from folk anthems to 60s inspired numbers to moving torch song ballads. Director Craig Revel Horwood allows Viv’s feisty character to take centre stage and, while his choreographic background is clearly in evidence, apart from a couple of gloriously over the top dance numbers, movement is integrated into the action. With actor-musician shows, the musical instruments can sometime intrude into the action but here Revel Horwood and musical supervisor Sarah Travis have ensured that the instrumentation forms part of the action rather than distracting.

Any actor musician show relies on the company working together as a true ensemble and the Watermill Newbury have assembled a first rate versatile cast for this tour of their hit revival. Karen Mann and Kirsty Hoiles, as Viv and her younger self, anchor the show with impressive vocal and emotional performances. Rarely off stage, the duo provide a real emotional heart to the piece, the older Viv reflecting on the decision her younger self took. Their duet Who’s Gonnna Love Me leaving many a damp eye in the auditorium. There are also memorable performances from Greg Barnett and Jack Beale as two of Viv’s five husbands but the whole company deliver wonderfully detailed performances.

Some shows have been shoehorned into the actor-musician format with various levels of success. Spend Spend Spend!, however, shows that the format can bring new emotional depths to a show and that, often, small scale is better than the blockbuster spectacle. Spend Spend Spend! turns out to be a fascinating and surprisingly moving look on how money can bring happiness but can also bring pain and despair.

The current financial climate may encourage fiscal restraint but any lottery winner, or indeed banker, would be wise to visit this show to understand the perils of instant wealth. .

Photo: Greg Barnett and Kirsty Holies in Spend Spend Spend! – photographer Robert Day

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