Victoria Wood's 'joyous' Talent back on Sheffield Crucible stage after 43 years

Sheffield Crucible is reviving Victoria Wood’s first play Talent which premiered at the theatre in 1978. Nick Ahad reports.

Lucie Shorthouse as Julie. Picture: Chris Saunders

After the last year theatres are understandably a little tentative about reopening and facing many questions.

Will audiences come back? Will people feel safe in a theatre? And perhaps most importantly: what can be programmed for the stage to lure folk back in?

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To that final question, Sheffield Theatres have the perfect answer: A Victoria Wood play.

Jamie-Rose Monk as Maureen. Picture: Chris Saunders

Not just any Victoria Wood play, but her very first play which was first staged in the very building where the revival is being performed over the coming month.

When it premiered in 1978, the then 25-year-old Wood watched the play in the Studio theatre. This new production opens tonight on the stage of the Crucible.

It’s a smart bit of programming.

Robert Hastie, artistic director of Sheffield Theatres, says: “Victoria Wood was – and remains – unrivalled in combining wit, heart and musical brilliance in her comedy, and Talent reminds us that as a playwright she was every bit as skilled at creating characters and songs for the stage as she was for the screen.

“It makes me proud of Sheffield’s long history of supporting emerging artists, which we continue today, and I’m excited to be bringing Talent back to the Crucible as we welcome audiences returning to live theatre. This play will be a delight for everyone who’s missed that feeling of togetherness you get from sharing laughter and music at a live performance.”

Hastie is the man in charge of the world famous Sheffield Crucible, the Lyceum and the Studio. It’s a big job and it means he has faced the prospect over the past year of trying to guide essentially three different venues through a pandemic.

Audiences across the world recently saw the Crucible on screen during the 2021 World Snooker Championship. It was quite moving to see people in that famous arena with the competition a test event seeing the audience slowly building over the fortnight until the final was played in front of a capacity crowd.

The run of Victoria Wood’s play has had to be sold at far less than capacity, a frustration for the theatre management surely, but one that is necessary due to Covid guidelines.

Wood’s play transferred to London following its Sheffield 1978 premiere and was adapted for television in 1979. Its significance is not just as Wood’s first play – the television version marked the first time Wood appeared alongside her frequent collaborator Julie Walters.

Although written over 40 years ago, the story remains remarkably relevant, featuring a hero who hopes to escape her own life with the opportunity provided by a talent show. Back then it was New Faces and Opportunity Knocks, these days – take your pick. Wood was as perspicacious as ever even at the start of her career.

Lucie Shorthouse, who Sheffield audiences might remember as the best friend of Jamie in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, plays Julie, the girl looking for her big break.

She says: “It’s such a privilege to be working on this production – it’s warm, witty, full of heart, but also offers illuminating social commentary that still stands today. After the year we’ve had, having a socially-distanced and well sanctioned team together again has been joyous. Sheffield Theatres have worked tirelessly to facilitate this production and to be performing the genius of Victoria Wood seems extra special considering this period of isolation. Her comedy was always so unifying.”

Julie is a single mother from Southport who enters a talent contest dreaming of stardom. She enlists the help of long-time friend and work colleague Maureen and together they meet a cast of interesting characters at the talent contest club: a magic act, an organist and a compere. With its themes of women trying to carve out a place for themselves, it deals with an idea Shorthouse was seen tackling on screen recently with the extraordinary We Are Lady Parts on Channel 4, which followed a female Muslim punk band.

Shorthouse says: “Although it’s set in 1978, the show is universal because it’s about the pursuit of dreams and the courage to break out of mundanity. I think the show also speaks of the resilience of women of that time and indeed now, 43 years after it was set. Wood observed so acutely the complexities of womanhood and the trials and tribulations that existed then and still do now.”

As ever, Wood’s writing pierces the heart and the head and does both without the audience ever noticing. Those who remember the club scene, where entertainers would cut their teeth performing across the country, will find much to love and those looking for social commentary will find plenty to inspire. A play with music, there’s even something in the show for fans of The Smiths.

For Shorthouse the production is a welcome return.

“I adore Sheffield. And I associate the Crucible with a real turning point in my career and personal life. I was lucky enough to play a part in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie as Jamie’s best friend Pritti, and the reception from the city – how much they embraced the story and championed its message – was so special. The city and indeed the theatre will always hold such an incredible place in my heart, so to return after the year we’ve had is such a privilege. I couldn’t be more thrilled.”

The same will almost certainly go for the audience, starved of theatre and live performance, it is a smart move to bring them back with a Victoria Wood classic.

History of popular play

Victoria Wood’s play Talent was first staged at the Studio in Sheffield in 1978, before transferring to London and opening in January 1979.

In the London production Jim Broadbent joined the cast, with Wood playing the role of Julie in the original Sheffield production and the London transfer.

It was filmed for ITV and broadcast in August 1979.

The play combines dialogue and music – and one of its tunes apparently inspired The Smiths song Rusholme Ruffians.

Talent, Sheffield Crucible, opens tomorrow, July 2, to July 24.

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