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Manchester theatre reviews

Greg Barnett as Keith and Kirsty Hoiles as the young Viv

Spend Spend Spend at The Lowry

A Musical based on the life story of Pools winner Viv Nicholson.

Directed by Craig Revel Horwood and Performed by The Watermill Theatre.

Reviewed by Jane Turner October 2010

At first glance, it seems hard to imagine what Viv Nicholson – a blonde-haired, white Northern working class woman could possibly have in common with Daniel Ben-Ami – a dark, Southern middle class man; and in all honesty it’s probably not that much, except for one crucial trait. They both like the idea of being able to spend money!


But while Viv spent to make her own life more enjoyable, Daniel is an advocate of spending to improve all of our lives; but more about that later. For now, let’s talk a little about Viv, the subject of the performance of Spend, Spend, Spend currently showing at the Lowry Theatre, Salford.


Taking heed from a pair of big spenders, instead of staying at home, turning out the lights and knitting my own socks by candlelight, in order to save a “few bob” at a time of caution and crisis, I hit the town to take in this new musical, hailed as a “triumph” in the press. And a triumph it is!


“Spend Spend Spend” tells the story of Viv Nicholson, a miners daughter, scraping an existence in Castleford, until one day in 1961 she “hit the jackpot” on the football pools winning the equivalent of approximately £5million today. Some of you may not have heard of her, or be aware that the Football Pools was the popular weekly gambling fix that preceded the National Lottery, but Viv’s face and story was splashed all over the tabloids for years as she went on one enormous spending spree, revelling in every “kerching” – an anti-consumerists worst nightmare!


She was catapulted from a life of grinding hardship and obscurity as a working class factory worker with a large family to fame and fortune and a short life in the fast lane inebriated and immersed in the luxury of fun, fashion and fast cars.  She became an instant media hit when she famously responded to a journalists question about “what she was going to do next” with her off-the-cuff response of “spend, spend, spend” and which came to be the maxim by which she lived the rest of her life.


Prior to her “big win”, she was a cog-in-a-wheel in a factory and her husband worked long dark hours down the pit.  Between them they earned a pittance of around £14 a week, and despite their hard but regular employment, still struggled to feed four children.  She says she often went without decent food and was “probably half-starved” and that household bills were regularly unpaid.  On the night she won the pools, she had been fed up and “desperate for a treat” and had borrowed the money from her mum to pay for the coupon.


Viv and Keith and the big fat chequeLike anybody who suddenly comes in to an unexpected fortune, she had a new hair-do, bought round after round of drinks in the local pub and set out to party. She was photographed shopping in Harrods, and treated herself to seven new outfits in one swoop (one for every day of the week), all with matching shoes and accessorised with an expensive gold watch. Up until that day, she said that every item of clothing she had ever owned had been either second-hand or full of holes, which explains her fondness for a change or two of decent clothing and which makes seven seem quite restrained to me?


Living the life she’d always dreamt of, she and her husband Keith bought a pink Chevrolet and changed it for a flashier and more expensive model every 6 months.  They went travelling across Europe and the USA, partied with the rich, poor, famous and infamous and bought a racehorse on which they gambled prolifically.  They stayed fairly close to their roots, but moved to a large bungalow in a more up-market area - “where they eat cake with a fork” - but were hated by the jealous neighbours for being “common and undeserving”, and for flashing their wealth and enjoying it so loudly.  If Viv hadn’t been so poor to begin with, this wouldn’t be much of a story and would never have got half as much media attention, as Viv’s tale, post-win, reads just like the regular lives of many in the glitterati who do what they like day in and out while the rest of us look on from the sidelines. 


Regularly featured in the tabloids Viv was loved and scorned in equal measure by the snobbish British media, who used a good old-fashioned rags-to-riches tale, to express their contempt for the working class, who in their view, have no taste, no brains and no sense of responsibility and who like Viv often end up back in the gutter from whence they came, living up to their favourite and well-used saying of “you can take the girl out of the gutter, but you can’t take the gutter out of the girl” or in Viv’s case Castleford, a coal-mining, flour making and brick milling industrial Yorkshire town, which in Viv’s day was still to be cleared of war debris and slum housing, and had very little going for it.


Along the way as she spent her millions, Viv managed to pay for her children to go to boarding school, acquire and lose 5 husbands, pick up a hefty tax bill and a drink problem, and after spending every penny of her win in one long spending spree that lasted just under 4 years she was declared bankrupt, alcoholic and depressed and began a backward descent into relative poverty if not obscurity.  She found work in nightclubs as a stripper and singer, and ended up working as a shop assistant for many years, claiming to have found relief from all of her problems when a Jehovah Witness came a-knocking in search of a ready recruit.


Now in her seventies, she has been known to reflect on the wisdom of her spending decisions, and (wait for it) now provides “money advice” on her website, although I can’t see George Osborne logging on for tips, and suspect he’d frown upon a woman like Viv and any kind of spending right now.  Viv continues to spend every penny that comes her way, from sales of her autobiography and the TV drama and musicals about her life.  Like many who have grown up in communities and families where people have short, hard lives and low expectations, she still prefers instant gratification and doesn’t see the point of waiting for tomorrow – hard to grasp by those who have never known such hardship – but set in context and seen through her eyes, her spending spree makes perfect sense.


Like many older people looking back through rose-tinted spectacles, Viv now says she has some regrets, and that she was “probably happier when skint” – making her popular with those who express disdain for mass consumption and greater choice and who deviously link it to the increase in diagnoses of depression and all sorts of imaginary ailments such as “affluenza” and mock theories such as “enoughism” in order to support their backward and misanthropic views.   Viv’s story has been hijacked by those with anti-consumerist tendencies and used to teach us a timely and increasingly widespread moral lesson about the limits of mass consumption, which goes some way to explain why this story is being rolled out once again right now.


This disdain can be detected in a Mail-online article from 2007 entitled “Spent Spent Spent”, which called Viv a “hubristic symbol of the consumer culture that has now reached almost every corner of British society” expressing disgust for consumerism and anti-working class prejudice in equal measure.  To paraphrase;  Viv smokes a lot, buys lots of fashionable clothes, bleaches her hair, has a Renoir print on her living room wall and china dogs on the mantelpiece of her two-up, three-down little house in a down-at-heel Northern town.  Sneering at the spending and lifestyle choices of the likes of us is a favourite pastime of many authors and playwrights and given the circulation of The Mail and the size of the audience at The Lowry, “Brand Viv” and such like bag them a nifty profit!


She was and still is an object of fascination, pity and contempt and stories like hers in the “Billy Elliot mould” are always ripe for turning into popular musicals and being used as vehicles for moral messages such as; we should be satisfied with less or be “happy with our lot”, greater choice makes us more miserable, shopaholism is an illness, stuffitis makes you sick, exercise self-restraint in your behaviour etc etc.  It seems that the human desire to enjoy ourselves or improve our lot and obtain more is deeply distasteful to many (usually those who have more than most to begin with) and the story of Viv Nicholson embodies many of today’s lessons from the pulpit of the cautious, pessimistic and misanthropic.


Her story has been billed as a “rags-to-riches-and-back-again” tale, a hard-luck story that should have had a happier ending – if only she’d exercised some restraint….sound familiar?


The Performance
The cast of Spend Spend SpendThis production is directed and choreographed by Craig Revel Horwood (of strictly come dancing fame) and is slick, energetic and packed with fun-filled “living-for-today” song and dance routines from start to finish.  Even the more sombre moments are delivered in a polished routine, tenderly wrapped in warmth and subtle humour, reflective no doubt of Viv’s buoyant character.


Choreographed to within an inch of it’s life, the show appears to have a dynamism all of it’s own, which as well as the excellent direction is also down to the multi-faceted mixed-bag of a cast who shift continually from acting to singing and dancing to playing an orchestra of instruments between them.


The 12 strong team of The Watermill Theatre burst with the vitality and boldness of the hardened Northern characters they depict.  The humour is at times pretty coarse and basic and is somewhat clichéd in parts revolving around drinking, sex and more drinking and more sex and comes with a chip on its broad working class shoulders.


Susannah van den Berg provides a barrel of laughs as Florrie the cleaner and also as a dancer in a leotard designed for someone of somewhat smaller proportions, but which she wears in her own unique style!  It is easy to sympathise with the elderly Viv, as played by Karen Mann in a rough-around-the-edges but warm and reflective manner.


Kirsty Hoiles as the young Viv is the star of the show and every inch the bright, brassy blonde who brings the character of Viv on fine form to joyous life.  She is equally effective when drink and depression take hold, succumbing to the depths and wallowing in the lows, and becoming more embittered with every shot of whiskey.  She sings and dances with gusto – “I want my bath taps gold plated and my sex life X rated” – and emulates the bravado of the young Viv in an ingenious little dance routine that incorporates the two-fingered salute, and turns it into an art form!


The Lowry Theatre

And The Lowry is of course the ideal setting for any depiction of a Northern rags-to-riches tale, set in one of the oldest Northern industrial heartlands which died and was almost buried along with the manufacturing industry from which it sprang.  Revitalised by tourism, some steely architecture and topped with a dollop of bling, with just a whistle of wind-chill coming in off the Manchester Ship Canal and the hard-boiled Salford stagger and you have the perfect backdrop for every sorry Northern tale.  LS Lowry couldn’t have painted it more perfectly.


Lessons for today?
Opinion is of course divided on Viv and those like her – there are many who say she should have saved the money, while others look on in envy at the spending powers she had and the luxury goods and lifestyle she could purchase.


I can’t help thinking that there are parallels here between today’s sceptics and spenders, the stagnant and regressive economies and the innovative and expanding ones, and that maybe, instead of focusing on Viv’s spending and lack of planning, and tut-tutting at her stupidity, we should be tutting in the direction of Parliament where the lack of vision and lack of spending on the UK economy is leading to cuts, cuts, cuts that will affect the quality of life for many.


Which is why I now come back to Daniel Ben-Ami, his excellent book “Ferraris For All: In Defence of Economic Progress" and his argument that if we are to achieve abundance for all, we need to take a leaf out of Viv’s book and spend, spend, spend to build an economy that is far more productive than what we have now.


In rejecting restraint, his view runs counter to those of all mainstream political parties who are intent on reining in the country’s spending, making large-scale cuts, and not investing in the future.  Their ideas “lack vision and ambition, are short-sighted in their aims and give up on the idea of economic growth as the basis for greater prosperity for all” says Daniel.


He argues that it would be far better to celebrate than condemn the qualities that make us human and to stop trying to limit our desires or curb our consumption.  This would then liberate our potential to create a better society for everyone.


So, if you want the best of everything and don’t want to rely on odds of 1 in 14 million while waiting for your numbers to come up on the National Lottery, take a chance on discussing ideas than can help advance society instead, as the odds are more favourable, and there's more fun in the process!


As the theme of Spend Spend Spend is a constant presence in the public domain right now, it is not surprising that the Manchester Salon, always at the forefront of debate in Manchester, has organised it's next discussion on the topic of Spending. Daniel Ben-Ami (author of Ferrais For All ) and Clive George will be investigating how best to facilitate economic development.  Please come along and join us.

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