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Watermill - Spend Spend Spend!

9th July to 29th August 2009. See below for 2010 production review.

From The Times.

Four stars
Now that we’re all suffering the after-effects of a spending spree the time is ripe for a revival of Steve Brown and Justin Greene’s musical fable about the 1960s pools winner Viv Nicholson, who learnt the hard way that money buys neither love nor happiness. Craig Revel Horwood’s production of this glorious account of one woman’s inglorious career is a belter, bursting with energy, appetite and coarse humour.

It begins in a tacky northern beauty salon, where the punters come to gawp at the middle-aged Nicholson, her fortune spent. She transports us, aided by Diego Pitarch’s brilliantly economical sets, back to her Yorkshire mining home town and to New York where, intimidated and alcohol-sodden, Nicholson and her husband find that a bite of the Big Apple is more than they can chew.

Brown’s flavoursome score, scintillatingly delivered by the actor-musician cast under Sarah Travis, encompasses gritty folk tunes and rowdy pub singsongs, Sixties pop, even a dash of Gershwin. And the lyrics are pungently precise. “The summers were longer, the beer tasted stronger,” Nicholson sings of her girlhood, until the misty nostalgia clears, revealing a reality of domestic violence, drunkenness and deprivation.

Our bleached-blonde heroine is given a terrific pair of performances by Karen Mann as the narrator Viv and Kirsty Hoiles as her younger self. Mann stalks on to the stage brandishing a trumpet, spits into its end and lifts it to her lips — a brassily defiant prelude to her unsparing, gutsy portrayal. Hoiles is ripely sensual, impulsive and childishly vulnerable; when Keith, the one true love among her string of gold-digging, abusive men, dies in a car crash the two desolate Vivs join in a devastating grief-stricken duet.

Revel Horwood’s choreographic talent is often to the fore. The title number’s staging involves a kickline of bunnygirls, some in drag, all wearing lurid make-up — it’s ludicrously funny, but also points up the grotesquerie of excessive consumption. And the gaudy glamour of Nicholson’s cash-flashing status is continually undermined, her filmstar poses disintegrating as she gleefully flicks V signs at her detractors. She ends up back where she started, but her journey is a hell of a joyride. Gobsmackingly good.


From The Sunday Times.

Three stars
Craig Revel Horwood, the Strictly Come Dancing judge, is clearly drawn to dark musicals. Following his production of Sunset Boulevard, this revival of Steve Brown and Justin Greene’s 1999 West End show is based on the life of Viv Nicholson, who won £152,319 (about £5m in today’s money) on the pools in 1961 and managed to blow the lot. Once again, the cast is required to play the score — a mix of brass band and big ballads — as well as sing the songs. As a result, cellos and clarinets incongruously appear in Nicholson’s local in the mining town of Castleford. Horwood’s sassy choreography comes into its own in the outrageous climax to the first half. Ungainly Playboy bunnies of all ages, shapes and gender line up to celebrate the big win by strutting their stuff and showing their tails.

Despite an unfortunate wig that makes her look a little like Myra Hindley, Kirsty Hoiles’s lively young Viv is most appealing when she discovers the joys of sex at 16. Being rich is a dream that quickly goes sour, especially when her husband dies in a car crash. Money brings her loneliness (a move 10 miles up the road to a posh part of Leeds is not a success), a permanent hangover and a string of unsuitable men. Unsurprisingly, by the time she marries her abusive fourth husband, both she and the musical have lost some of their gusto.


From Newbury Theatre.

I don’t like modern musicals – give me Oklahoma! or Oliver! every time – so I approached Spend Spend Spend! (so many exclamation marks!) without a great deal of enthusiasm. But it’s brilliant; energetically, engrossingly, foot-tappingly brilliant.

This is the well-known story of the rise and fall of Viv Nicholson, the big pools winner of 1961. It’s always a pleasure to see Watermill regular Karen Mann, here playing the older Viv who looks back and narrates the story acted out by Kirsty Hoiles as young Viv. This was a great performance from Kirsty Hoiles, starting as the innocent ice cream girl in Castleford and coarsening into the blowsy, brash and brassy wife of a string of unsuitable husbands.

The first half builds up to the big pools win, with a great set of songs by Steve Brown, from solos like the wistful The Boy Next Door to rousing ensemble numbers like John Collier. By the final number, Spend Spend Spend, the amazing sight of the (mostly male) cast dressed as bunny girls and prancing around the stage brought the house down.

The second half is much more poignant, as Viv realises that money isn’t the answer. “I miss the way life used to be”, she sings as she and husband Keith (Greg Barnett) drift apart and Keith dies. All the money gets frittered away and Viv ends up working in a hairdressing salon, looked down on by the customers. Karen Mann gives us pathos by the bucketload, but there is an upbeat ending to what is really a good old-fashioned morality play. I suspect that the real Viv was not the easiest person to get on with, but the Mann/Hoiles duo make her a likeable person who is the victim of circumstances.

Among the strong cast, Graham Kent is Viv’s bruiser of a father, and Susannah van den Berg is a bundle of energy as Florrie and formidable as a bunny girl.

The versatile set made good use of the limited space and evoked a glow of 60s nostalgia. The small size of the Watermill stage can make some productions rather overpowering, but not in this case – the music, singing and particularly the dancing are so in-your-face that you can’t help being sucked in by the enthusiasm of it all.

The partnership of director and choreographer Craig Revel Horwood and musical arranger Sarah Travis once again shows their excellence at the Watermill with this outstanding production.


From the Newbury Weekly News.

This summer's winner

Craig Revel Horwood directs the raunchy musical Spend Spend Spend! at The Watermill

Spend Spend Spend!, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until August 29

Anyone who has ever hoped to win the lottery might feel differently after seeing in The Watermill's latest actor/musician production how, in 1961, real-life pools winner Viv Nicholson got rid of today's equivalent of around £5m.

The top-notch partnership of Craig Revel Horwood in charge of direction and choreography, with musical arranger Sarah Travis, turn the highs and lows of Viv's life into an entertainment which is funny, bawdy and moving in equal measure.

A giant garage door symbolises the years rolling by and initially becomes the backdrop for a beauty salon where the older Viv (Karen Mann in a blockbuster of a performance) turns narrator for her story.

Without a trace of regret she relives her past through her younger self -Kirsty Hoiles, brilliantly capturing all the aspects of the flirty, bouffant-blonde young Viv, a superb mix of Yorkshire grit, vivacity and naivety.

Beaten by her father George (Graham Kent), Viv escapes into marriage and pregnancy, but then finds her soulmate in Keith (Greg Barnett) and it is during this second marriage that, as a friend puts it "luck was a bitch, but now you're rich," and Viv announces her intention to spend the lot.

The Castleford pub crowd, having discovered that they are not getting any of the dosh, turn unfriendly and Viv begs Keith to find a place where they can hide. This turns out to be Garforth "where they eat cake with a fork", but happiness eludes the pair - and the money is running out.

The countless songs, reminiscent of the period, are a wonderful balance between the poignant - when Keith is killed in a car accident Viv pleads Who's Gonna Love Me? - the raunchy Dance of Love, and the dramatic John Collier, a testament to those who give their lives for coal, as Castleford is a mining village. What you will undoubtedly come out humming is the title tune, remembering the vibrant, dynamic dance with miners and friends alike dressed in fishnets and leotards punching out the message.

The combination of another intricate, clever set, the superb cast of actor/musicians, a pulsating exciting score and the story, far meatier than many a more frothy musical, make Spend Spend Spend! a must-see.


From The Guardian.

Four stars
Another summer, another terrific small-scale musical revival from the Watermill, directed by Craig Revel Horwood. Based on the true story of Pools winner Viv Nicholson, this rags-to-riches – and back again – tale is Cinderella with a twist, a morality tale for our own spend-today-and-pay-tomorrow age. Steve Brown and Justin Greene's 1998 musical is big and brassy like its heroine, Viv, the Yorkshire miner's wife whose husband Keith scooped in 1961 the equivalent of more than £5m. It works well here as a chamber piece performed by actor-musicians. The sense that we're watching a memory play is heightened: in the final refrain of Roll Back the Years, the elderly Viv reaches back towards her past as if remembering everything she's lost.

Having two Vivs, the older and younger versions, constantly on stage works particularly well, and Brown's score – mixing styles and influences from English folk to popular music of the period – is a pleasure. I always wondered why this show didn't enjoy greater West End success. On second viewing, I feel that may be due to its linear structure, and that, while it has some terrifically upbeat moments – climaxing in the closing first act number, Spend Spend Spend! – the pungent but downbeat second half doesn't have the feelgood factor that West End musicals demand.

Nonetheless, it pulls the heartstrings, and this revival's pocket-sized nature magnifies the emotion and plays the comedy cannily, even if the design is overbusy. In a strong cast, the cracked maturity of Karen Mann's older Viv provides an aching contrast with Kirsty Hoiles's young Viv, and Greg Barnett is superb as Keith. A little treasure.


There are reviews in The Stage ("vibrantly staged by Craig Revel Horwood, whose confidently audacious direction and choreography is a sure-fire success... fantastic cast of actor musicians "), the Oxford Times ("this production has done something very rare: it has turned a not enormously memorable musical into something special, without losing any of the show’s grit and bawdiness"), Reviews Gate ("much of the show, especially in the first act, is good fun... the level of skill of the performers is exceptional"), Whats On Stage ("a gloriously warm, in-yer-face revival that fits the intimate Watermill like a glove" - five stars) and ("a show as well-written and brilliantly staged as this is perfect for a night out... one of the theatrical 'must sees' of the summer").

9th to 25th September 2010 and on tour.

From the Newbury Weekly News.

What a spending spree!

Craig Revel Horwood's Spend Spend Spend! revival has lost none of its fizz

Spend Spend Spend!, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until Saturday, September 25

The Watermill Theatre revives its hugely successful, TMA award winning hit musical Spend Spend Spend! this month before going on tour and it's an absolute gem.

It follows the rags-to-riches-to-rags-again story of Viv Nicholson, a coalminer's wife from Castleford in Yorkshire, who won £152,319 on the pools in 1961, at that time the biggest sum ever won; equivalent to £3m today.

Karen Mann gives an outstanding brassy-spirited performance as the older Viv as she narrates her intriguing rollercoaster story, where she decides to spend all her winnings on fast cars, expensive holidays and luxury homes.

Playing the younger Viv, with vitality and spirit, was the award-winning Kirsty Hoiles, in a true tour de force performance. Having both Vivs on stage at the same time created an extra dimension to understanding Viv's character. The combination was pure magic with some striking duets, particularly the poignant song Who's Going to Love me Now. Her life was not easy, she married Matt (Jack Beale) and became pregnant but it all ended in disaster. She is beaten by her harsh, drunken father George, splendidly acted by Graham Kent, who maintains old-fashioned values as he props up the bar in the Miner's Arms.

Luck strikes when she falls head over heels in love with the 'boy next door' Keith, sterlingly played by Greg Barnett and gets married again; a recurring theme in her life. Presented with her winning cheque by Bruce Forsyth the couple go on a massive spending spree, travelling to New York and living the dream life of the rich and famous. But money soon runs out and their marriage is dangerously near to ending up on the rocks.

When Keith is killed in a car accident, the pressure on Viv becomes unbearable with the bank demanding money and she goes through disastrous marriages trying to find happiness.

Craig Revel Horwood directs and choreographs with panache and brio, filling the small stage with dance routines that sparkle and fizz with inventiveness.

The whole company in bunny girl costumes singing the title song is simply a hilarious masterpiece full of fun and energy. Sarah Travis' arrangements of Steve Brown's music works splendidly, giving the 12 versatile actor musicians a vibrant score to perform which they do with zest and verve. Their ensemble acting was outstanding.

Diego Pitarch's wonderfully resourceful set transports us from a northern beauty salon; a gritty pub; Viv's Yorkshire mining home and to New York with great originality.

This was a joyous evening's entertainment and I urge you to book for the remaining tickets, you will not be disappointed. Highly recommended.