Victoria Wood, Britain’s most popular and award-laden comedy writer, revives her 1978 debut play-with-songs, “Talent,” at the Menier Chocolate Factory, the London venue with a reputation for pint-sized pizzazz, and for generating commercial transfers. What could possibly go wrong? Alas, pretty much everything.
Set at a one-night talent contest in a two-bit Northern club, Wood’s play has an intriguing set-up. Instead of concentrating upon the hopefuls’ acts, it focuses largely backstage on skinny wannabe singer Julie (Leanne Rowe) who has turned up with her dumpy friend Maureen (Suzie Toase) in tow.
Bigger on determination than on talent, Julie swiftly learns that in the tawdry world of minor showbiz, seedy comperes have wandering hands and manipulative minds. And, all too soon, any tension is snapped by the revelation that local competitions are fixed by tour managers. Because Julie is an amateur, disappointment clearly looms.
By far the strongest section is Wood’s new flash-forward opening. In blissful 1970s wigs, radioactive yellow shirts, blinding electric blue suits and matching platform shoes, Triple Velvet — think Velveeta — sashay on and sing.
Their delightfully hackneyed number sets the vainglorious tone, but the mood slips significantly with the arrival of Julie, who boasts of international stardom but is immediately revealed to have barely left Britain. Making her so immediately unsympathetic throws the rest of the original text off-center. If we don’t care for her to begin with, it’s hard to feel anything for Julie’s later predicament.
Attention thus shifts too heavily onto the underwritten role of Maureen, originally played by Wood herself. Other than being a frumpy sounding board, she has no dramatic function. Toase brings a beam of hope to the part but designer Roger Glossop’s overworked costume — preposterously twee shoes, woollen tights, dowdy dress, thick scarf and woolly hat — sabotages any attempt at subtlety.
Nor do Glossop and lighting designer Paul Anderson solve the problems of creating convincingly atmospheric spaces for Julie’s surprise reunion with her organ-playing ex-lover, who got her pregnant while she was still at school.
What’s happily clear is that at the start of her career, Wood (who also directs the revival) had already honed her observational skills and found her distinct comic voice. The script is littered with beautifully set-up, bizarre one-liners. Despite the gags, however, interest sags because events ramble rather than coalescing into an involving plot. And although a couple of wistful internal monologue songs meander poignantly, the new musical finale changes gear so often it fails to evoke any particular mood.
The able cast seizes its opportunities and Mark Hadfield walks away with the show, comically doubling as the nerdily inept magician’s assistant and, for reasons never explained, as Mary, the not-to-be-messed-with house manageress.
Wood’s beloved name alone will generate audiences for “Talent.” Word-of-mouth, however, is likely to scupper chances of future life.