BWW Reviews: SPEND SPEND SPEND, Union Theatre, March 28 2015
Spend Spend Spend (at the Union Theatre until 18 April) tells the rags-to-riches-to-rags story of Viv Nicholson, the Castleford housewife whose infamous reply to journalists' questions about what she would do with a jackpot pools win haunts her to this day - as well as providing the snappy title to this 1998 musical. It was a different, much smaller, media world in the 60s and 70s, so comparisons aren't easy, but if you're thinking that Viv was a previous generation's Katie Price - well, you're not far off.
The book (and words and music by Steve Brown and Justin Greene) introduces Viv as an innocent 1950s schoolgirl, a bottle blonde minature Diana Dors who fascinates the mining lads in Yorkshire's post-war patriarchal society, but whose boozy father rules her with an iron fist - the ironic "I'll Take Care Of Thee" his swansong to any control he has over Viv. Soon she's setting the pattern for her life with her voracious appetites and dismal choices of men giving her the responsibilities of motherhood as a teenager and her first divorce, inevitably provoked by her desire for the "John Collier" over the backyard fence "The Boy Next Door".
And that parochial, locally scandalous, rather miserable life would have played out as so many others did were it not for the giant cheque (for the equivalent today of £3M) handed over by Bruce Forsyth in the full glare of Littlewoods' publicity machine. After that, Viv didn't fit in in Castleford (despite her largesse at "The Miners Arms"), nor in the middle class suburb of "Garforth", nor in New York when "Drinking in America" - adrift, her life fell apart and, dogged by the tabloid press every step of the way, she ended up hairdressing in Yorkshire, occasionally recognised and, as usual, sneered at for blowing the lot.
Told in flashback, two Vivs take us through her life. Katy Dean captures the excitement and disappointment of Young Viv, as the promise of successive husbands and the endless parties and fur coats flicker and fade, Viv failing to find something that can last longer than a hangover. Julie Armstrong, older, wiser, almost, but not quite, content with her hairdressing, belts out her numbers suffused with pathos but without apology. These two fine performances combine to give us a Viv who could be cruel and hasty, but for whom we have a great deal of sympathy - after all, she had no template to follow as the 60s cultural revolution carried her along as much as it did her contemporaries The Beatles, Marianne Faithful and Twiggy. There's strong support from the emsemble too, in which James Lyne stands out as the doomed Keith, husband Number 2.
Much has changed today. We may still have a media that likes to poke its lens into private lives and there's still a market for gawping at the working class kids made good in Hello magazines and its competitors and on TV in MTV Cribs and its imitators - but there are also PRs who micro-manage celebrities' lives from the A list right down to the Z list. And, even in 21st century times of austerity, we just wouldn't notice spend, spend, spending on Viv's scale - she would, like so many others so much more worthy of the opprobrium that rained down on her for so long, be able to hide in plain sight in 2015.