Review: Spend Spend Spend at the Watermill
Spend Spend Spend, an Olivier Award nominated show that first hit the West End back in 1999 - with its highly tuneful score, hard-nosed but also raunchily humorous book and an emotional core that rings with human truth - is a much underrated gem of a musical. Now, in a newly forged "actor-musician" production at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury, the gem sparkles and shines even brighter.
The show is based on the life of Viv Nicholson, the "Castleford lass" who notoriously won - and frittered away - a record Pools jackpot in 1961. After 15 years of a depraved social and sexual frenzy that involved three husbands and an element of heartbreaking personal tragedy, the show's anti-heroine finally realizes that back when she and her husband Keith had nothing but their love of each other was the time in her life when she really "had it all".
The music score by Steve Brown and Book and Lyrics by Brown and Justin Greene weave Viv's story together in a way that moves seamlessly along, drawing the audience into her world, making them laugh and then suddenly making them cry. This world is masterfully revealed by Diego Pietarch's starkly stunning and cleverly functional set, Sarah Travis's beautiful musical arrangements and Craig Revel Horwood's brilliantly choreographed direction. Horwood not only paints a striking visual tableau on stage that allows the story to flow at the perfect pace but also his eye for detail is so precise that there are individual moments of quite intimate magic - and every moment rings with absolute truth. Even the outrageously camp number that accompanies the Pools win, complete with Drag Queen bunny girls, genuinely serves the essence of the play by highlighting the almost obscene ridiculousness of the situation. It also, of course, "brings the house down" with laughter.
While Craig Revel Horwood is the grand Puppet-master of the piece, the "puppets" are a troupe of incredible actor-musicians. Playing multiple roles (and multiple instruments!), ensemble players Kit Orton, Robin Colyer, Neil Ditt, Christian Edwards, Liz Kitchen, Tara Nelson, David Osmond and Susannah Van Den Berg light up the stage with their talent and raw energy. Graham Kent gives a powerful and multi-layered performance as Viv's Dad, while Greg Barnett shines as husband Keith, his beautiful delivery of the song "Canary In A Cage" being one of the special moments in the show. Then there are the two "Vivs": Watermill veteran Karen Mann as the older Viv, who serves as the show's narrator, is magnificent - while newcomer Kirsty Hoiles as Young Viv gives a true star quality performance. And the heart-wrenching duet between the two divas, "Who's Gonna Love Me?", is a bona-fide show-stopper.
Perhaps a show that deals with the mirror images of poverty and excess is particularly apposite for a night out during the current climate of recession. Or maybe it's simply that a show as well-written and brilliantly staged as this is perfect for a night out at any time. What is certain is that this is one of the theatrical "must sees" of the summer.