In 1961, Keith and Viv Nicholson from Castleford, Yorkshire won £152,319 on the Pools, worth around £5 million today. He was a miner, she worked in a liquorice factory, and for better or worse, it changed their lives forever.
The couple were persuaded to go public with their huge win and Viv’s declaration that she would ‘Spend spend spend’ and her colourful character caught the public imagination. Their spending spree on cars, holidays and luxury home inspired envy and Schadenfreude, as the press eagerly followed their ups and downs.
Eventually the widowed (much remarried and once widowed again) Viv published her autobiography with co-author Stephen Smith. Jack Rosenthal’s award-winning TV film followed in 1978 , and this, Steve Brown and Justin Greene’s multi award-winning musical in 1999.
Viv’s extraordinary life is surely the stuff musicals are made of and director Craig Revel Horwood (who choreographed Jeremy Sams’ original production) has taken Brown and Greene’s wonderfully funny, moving tragi-comedy and fashioned a gloriously warm, in-yer-face revival that fits the intimate Watermill like a glove.
Horwood manages to make the piece earthy and sophisticated at the same time. He’s full of great ideas, like the hilarious chorus line of mixed sex ‘bunny girls’ white pants hanging over their suspenders, and a fireman who almost delivers the ‘Full Monty’. The action moves from Viv’s present to her past, from working-class pub to middle-class estate with breathtaking speed and seamless scene changes.
The Watermill’s trademark actor/singer/musicians perform with passion, wit and commitment to make this happen, and musical director Sarah Travis delivers some of her best-ever ravishing harmonies for Brown and Greene’s great numbers, from raucous to heart-rending as the story moves along. The authors’ masterstroke is splitting Viv so she has a younger self, providing knowing insight into her own predicament, a valid reason for narrating her own story – and an opportunity for stunning duets, which Karen Mann’s sympathetic, rueful old Viv and Kirsty Hoiles’ electrifying, brassy yet vulnerable Young Viv seize with relish.
Greg Barnett’s Keith is sexy and touching, Graham Kent manages to be funny and shocking as Viv’s sometimes violently abusive father George; and the Junoesque Susannah van den Berg almost steals the show in every incarnation from ‘playing’ customer at Viv’s beauty salon, blowing her clarinet as Viv titivates and titillates her, to barmaid at their local preparing to welcome the winners.
It’s invidious, though, to mention anyone in this extraordinarily strong cast of 12. A London transfer should be a certainty – but metropolitan audiences will miss out on the way Diego Pitarch’s splendidly inclusive and versatile set links the woodwork of pub, hotel and homes both modest and luxury, with the Watermill’s lovely wooden balconies, as audiences take Viv and her story to their hearts.