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The Theatreguide.London Review

Spend Spend Spend
Union Theatre   Spring 2015

When this musical first appeared in the West End in 1999 our reviewer called it 'snappy, funny and poignant'. But the present revival exposes the raw material as pretty weak, saved here by a couple of excellent performances and some sprightly direction and choreography. 

In 1961 Yorkshire housewife Viv Nicholson and her husband won 152, 319, equivalent to about 5 million today, in the pools (a popular low-stakes high-odds gamble in the pre-lottery days, based on predicting all a weekend's football games). 

The working-class couple burned their way through the money with remarkable speed, and Viv later wrote a book about it, making her something of a folk heroine as a survivor. 

The musical's book by Steve Brown and Justin Green, with music by Brown, takes us through the rags-to-riches-to-rags story from the point of view of the older and wiser Viv.

It is a surprisingly glum musical. You expect the moral to be 'Well, we blew it all, but we had a ball doing it'. But after the first few bottles of champagne Viv and husband Keith aren't shown having much fun at all. 

They move into a posh area, losing their old friends while being shunned by their new neighbours. Furs and fancy hotels lose their appeal quickly, Keith dies in an accident and Viv races through a string of abusive husbands. 

The banks cheat her and the taxman demands his share, and soon she's back where she began, working in a beauty parlour and resented by her old friends. 

If any one thing keeps this from being a misery, it is the performance of Julie Armstrong as the older Viv.

Introducing the story, commenting as it unfolds and generally hovering over it as a benign presence, Armstrong not only sings and acts well, but exudes a warmth and wise acceptance that colour and redeem the dark story she tells. 

Matching and complementing her is Katy Dean as the younger Viv, whose high spirits and strong singing and dancing energise the musical while still suggesting the depth of character that will allow her version of Viv to become the older woman. 

Director Christian Durham skilfully moves a large cast around the Union's small stage and does what he can to keep the energy up through the book's darker episodes. Choreographer Heather Douglas contributes a couple of peppy and colourful production numbers, particularly in the title song, along with a witty bit of a Fosse tribute. 

The Union Theatre has made something of an industry of reviving B-list musicals of the past. Sometimes, as here, it is the A-list production that makes them worthwhile.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Spend Spend Spend - Union Theatre 2015

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