Talent, Wood’s first and only stage play produced to date, premiered in 1978 at the Sheffield Crucible, with Wood herself in the cast, and in 1979 transferred to the ICA in London and won Wood an Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright. That same year, a TV adaptation featured Wood and Julie Walters performing together on screen for the first time.
It’s talent night at Bunter’s nightclub, and pretty singing contestant Julie and her fat friend Maureen (the parts originally played by Walters and Wood and now taken by Leanne Rowe and Susie Toase) are waiting backstage,. As they’re plunged into a world of ukulele-wielding pensioners, crotch-grabbing comperes and some long- buried personal history, Julie and Maureen have to decide how lucky they really want to be.
Talent, which is billed as a play with songs, has original music and lyrics by Wood, who has also directed the new, revised version. The revival is co-produced with the Old Laundry Theatre in Bowness, where, prior to the Menier, it had a run of 15 performances. Victoria Wood – along with Alan Rickman and Griff Rhys Jones – is a trustee of the Old Laundry, which was founded in 1992 by Roger Glossop. Talent opened on 23 September 2009 (previews from 17 September) at the Menier Chocolate Factory, where it continues until 14 November.
At last night’s Q&A, Victoria Wood was joined by the full cast: Leanne Rowe, Susie Toase, Mark Curry, Mark Hadfield, Jeffrey Holland and Eugene O'Hare. The discussion took place in the theatre immediately after the performance and was chaired by Whatsonstage.com editorial director Terri Paddock. Click on the 'play' button above to listen to it in full – including discussion on New Faces, Wood’s future plans for stage and screen, Curry’s boxer shorts, Hadfield’s cross-dressing success and dreams of a female-dominated 21st century. Edited transcript highlights follow …
On how Talent was born
Victoria Wood: In the summer of 1978, I was in a revue at the Bush Theatre in Shepherd’s Bush called In at the Death, and it was all about death. We had to read the week’s news and write things based on the deaths of that week. So I wrote about Guy the Gorilla who died that week, and a man whose wife had died… and I couldn’t find any more things to write about death so I wrote a sketch about sex and it was the first sketch I had ever written. A theatre director, David LeLand, was in the audience one night. He was getting a new play season together at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, and he asked if I wanted to try and write a play. He said that if I could come up with a scenario, then we could go ahead with it. I wrote an idea down at a friend’s flat and slipped it under his door in the middle of the night. Then he called me up and said go ahead and write it. I had never written a play before, and I didn’t realise it was supposed to be difficult. So I wrote it, and we put in on in a very simple sort of way. I kept writing plays after that, but they were all terrible and never saw the light of day.
On the screen version & why now’s the time to revive the stage play
Jeffrey Holland: This is a bit embarrassing, but I’ve always been a huge fan of Victoria, a huge fan! When I got a phone call from my agent saying Victoria Wood wanted to see me, I thought, oh I should be there! I thought the idea for Talent was wonderful. I remember seeing it on television in 1979. It was the first thing that Victoria and Julie Walters did together, and it put them on the map. I think now is a good time to revive it because, in 2009, we’re ready to see the Seventies again as a piece of history. And I get to wear a blue velvet suit! And then there are those wonderful platform shoes which are very dangerous but very fun.
Victoria Wood: I’m not one to revive things. I’m not too fond of looking back on my work - when I’ve done something, I tend to forget about it. But my friends Roger and Charlotte, who were in the original production, have a theatre (The Old Laundry) and they wanted to produce a piece of homegrown work rather than just buying in things. They wanted to do Talent because that’s what we had all met on. I said alright, but I’m not going to do it. As the weeks went by and they kept thinking of people to direct it, I would say, no I don’t want them to. In the end, I decided to do it. I got so involved in adjusting things and adding a new section that I just loved it.
Mark Curry: It was a very big thing when it was on telly. I was still singing in the clubs at the time - for my friends and I, this was real and raw, this was what it was like ... It really was a male-dominated world back then. These talent competitions were run by men who would prey on young girls. I remember knowing young women who, if they didn’t do what the men wanted, wouldn’t be offered a gig. That’s how it was. It really was very seedy ... You could be spotted singing in a club back then, and one person had to say, I like him, and that was it, it could change your whole career. Now one person has to go to his company who then have to go to these other people, but back then it was a very simple time. It was also a very exciting time. Variety was big and television was booming!
Mark Hadfield: I think this play turns the whole thing on its head, with all the talent shows today on telly. It seems today like it’s about instant fame, instant recognition, instant appreciation. I think this shows, brilliantly, what a struggle it really was. You had to keep at it if you really wanted to get anywhere. You had to go through the embarrassment of horrible little rooms like this and seedy companies and all the sexism. It’s brilliant that this is such a good reminder of that.
On following in the footsteps of Julie Walters & Victoria Wood
Leanne Rowe: I had it quite easy because (Walters) wasn’t there in the rehearsal room. But she was in the audience one night! I saw her in the dressing room beforehand. I was hoping that, because it was so long ago, people would have forgotten them and would look at it with fresh eyes.
Victoria Wood: It was such a long time ago that I never thought “oh, well we used to do it like this.” So I hope I never put them under the pressure of trying to copy what we did back then.
On working with Victoria Wood, the director
Leanne Rowe: She’s very patient with us. When we’re in rehearsals and we aren’t doing something right, she doesn’t snap at us, she just shows us how to remedy it. Jeffrey Holland: She understands us. She knows what she wants and she knows how to get it without getting cross. She’s very exact.
Eugene O’Hare: I think when the director is a performer then they’re easier to work for because they know what they want and they know how to get it from you. It’s probably a bit quicker than directors who aren’t performers and don’t know the language. Rehearsals with Victoria were quite fun and were painless.
On the difference between a play with music & a musical
Victoria Wood: I suppose it’s a question of degree, really. There are songs that are crucial and inherent to the action. I know a lot more about writing songs than I did when I was 25, and so I would do it differently if I did it now. The story is very simple, and within it, there are some songs. We only really have a piano and some simple choreography. It’s the simplicity ... Everyone had to be able to sing. When I decided to expand it and have the extra section, I knew it had to have people who could sing and carry a harmony and a tune.