Review: Talent @ Crucible Theatre

Ah! The return of live theatre to Sheffield’s hallowed Crucible stage – a delight that not so long ago seemed nothing more than a pipe dream. In fact, I actually had to pinch myself upon taking a seat in the famous auditorium, just to check I hadn’t nodded off during a lockdown snooze at home.

And speaking of pipe dreams, in Paul Foster’s production of Talent, a play written in 1978 by the late Victoria Wood, such fanciful notions are seen to dominate the mind of lead character Julie Stephens, a 24-year-old office worker who has entered a talent night at Bunters nightclub in the hope of kickstarting a career in showbiz.

It’s in a grotty backstage room on the eve of the event that all the action unfolds. That said, genuine action is very much at a premium here; instead, Wood uses witty dialogue and catchy musical numbers to tell a story in the intimate and deliberately suffocating confines of the club’s green room.

From Julie (played by Lucy Shorthouse), her wry observations and takes on life tend to veer from the hopeful and cheery to the downright dejected and gloomy. As the narrative unravels and her situation becomes clearer, you begin to see how underneath the bubbly veneer of a confident, saucy, babycham-supping persona is a palpable sense of anxiety about entrapment in an unfulfilling life of rank mediocrity.

Much of the play focuses on the relationship between Julie and Maureen (Lucie Shorthouse), a naive but genuinely warm friend who has come along to offer moral support ahead of the performance. The duo are stark opposites in every way: while Julie is at times vain, Maureen is charmingly modest; Julie is experienced in sex and relationships, Maureen is a self-confessed novice; one is enamoured by dreams of glitz and glamour, the other is content at home with her parents and a good meal.

Other characters passing through the room add texture to your typically smoky, sleazy 1970s club environment. Julie’s ex-boyfriend and resident organist Mel (Jonathon Ojinnaka) shows up, years after ending their relationship upon discovering she was pregnant, bringing into focus the heartbreak suffered by underage girls once older men have had their fun and promptly exit the scene. Turning up the chauvinistic values to the gigawatts, though, is the evening’s compere (Daniel Crossley), who is so consistently disgusting that it leads the main character to question whether climbing the fame ladder is worth it if you meet such creeps on every other rung.

Elsewhere, a good chunk of comedic relief is provided by old-timer Lancastrian duo, George (James Quinn) and Arthur (Richard Cant), who’ve been peddling their fairly underwhelming goods on the cabaret circuit for donkeys’ years and whose folksy, laidback approach to the evening clashes with Julie’s impatient desires to be noticed.

Talent is not a scintillating story, nor is it exhaustingly funny, but it does successfully manage to combine a nice dollop of humour and wit with sobering observations of the challenges and social stigma faced by working class women in an industry which promises glam but often delivers sham. It’s far from the pinnacle of Wood’s achievements, but a solid starting point for what she would go on to accomplish in a wide-ranging and illustrious career.

JF 3/5 

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