Victoria Wood’s Talent follows ambitious 24-year-old Julie (Lucie Shorthouse) chasing her dreams of stardom and escaping her dead-end job. The Bunters club is hosting a Talent show which gives Julie the opportunity to sing her heart out and waltz around the stage with an eclectic group of energetic characters. On stage we find the easy to watch Jamie-Rose Monk as Maureen, the easily hateable Daniel Crossley as the sleazy Compare, and the wonderfully funny double act that is Richard Cant and James Quinn, playing Arthur and George. When all is done and the house lights come up I realise that it’s not 1978 anymore. The Crucible’s revival of the 43-year-old hit certainly does its best to transport you to the past. What I realise is that maybe, this is not a good thing.
Talent exudes both the shame and the shine of the seventies, but mostly the shame. Whilst the statement is becoming a cliche, Talent is the sort of show that wouldn’t be made in the modern-day theatre scene. Something about age-old sexist tropes, jokes at the expense of the show’s “fat best friend”, and repetition of the oversexed unreliable black male just doesn’t feel very 2021. Looking around the room, it’s clear that the older audience members are having more fun. It’s why I can’t completely write off this moderately enjoyable play; everyone twenty years older than I find the Morecambe and Wise references hilarious.
It’s an example of how important positionality is to someone’s experience of a production. Sure, the room fills with laughter from time to time, but most of the time I remain pretty silent. Whilst reference to ‘serving hatches’ probably passed its sell-by-date in the late ’90s, jokes about desperately needing to pee seem pretty timeless (if a little easy). Which is to say that not everyone walks out of the production with my qualms. For the old Yorkshire folk who grew up on comedies like this, understand the references, and want a trip down memory lane, this is a treat. For me, a musical about the pains and existential dread of following your dreams isn’t attractive — unless it’s Avenue Q.
On that note, it is Talent’s position as a pseudo-musical which brings the most grief. Talent ignores well-known axioms for how to make a good musical. Namely, songs should come naturally and they should propel the characters or story forward. The proverb goes “When you can’t speak you sing, and when you can’t sing you dance”. It seems that rather than writing for character or for story, the music punctuates moments or provides light relief. It’s not bad per say — the audience sing on the way out — but it’s more flaccid than it could be. Overflowing with lost potential. It’s almost as though Woods couldn’t decide if it was a musical or not.
With that in mind, there is very little the current cast and crew can do to revitalise this outdated clunky carton of milk. The cast is full of wonderful performers, the stage is well explored, and expertly utilised, but the play is the play. Even in the moments where the production feels timely, it fails to grasp the complexity or emotions behind issues of sexual harassment. Whilst, it would be interesting to see this production in a larger retrospective, exploring our changing relationship with race, gender, and class in theatre, I’m not sure it’s fit for right now.
Still, nothing beats the feeling of getting lost in a theatre for an hour and a half. If you’re lucky, you can make up your own mind about whether Talent is shiny or shameful.
Talent is playing at the Crucible Theatre until 24 July 2021. For more information and tickets, see Sheffield Theatres online.