As we head towards the opening of our newest production Talent, we chatted to Director Paul Foster about how he plans to bring to the stage Victoria Wood's unmatched wit and wisdom.
How does it feel to be working on this production? Especially after the past year, what have you missed the most?
It feels wonderful to be back working at the Crucible. The staff are always so welcoming and do all they can to ensure that local audiences are offered a rich and varied programme of work – it’s absolutely central to the arts scene in the area. I’m used to the whole building feeling very buzzy, with people in and out the whole time but obviously, at the moment, there are fewer people around. Everyone here is totally focused on making it properly memorable when the doors are flung open again. Over the past fifteen months, it’s connecting with people that I’ve missed the most. Theatre by its very nature is collaborative and I love telling and listening to stories. Art will help us navigate what we’ve been through, I think. We’ll certainly realise how much we’ve missed the togetherness that theatre provides.
Paul, tell us about the show. What can audiences expect?
Because it’s written by the irreplaceable Victoria Wood, I think that audiences can expect to laugh: belly laugh, guffaw, chuckle, smile wryly, the lot. The way she used language and how she understood and celebrated Northern voices still resonates. Talent takes place backstage in a nightclub in the North West in 1978. A young secretary has come along to the club’s Talent Night to try out as a singer in front of a panel with alleged connections to TV programmes like New Faces and Opportunity Knocks. She brings along her friend Maureen for moral support. We see some of the motley crew of other acts and witness the two women’s friendship shifting, and are shown how the road to success is often paved with banana skins and seediness, particularly for female performers. The play is alternately surprising and disturbing. It still packs a punch. And it also features some cracking songs.
Victoria Wood is so cherished in British comedy – what is your fondest or most stand-out memory of her and/or her work?
Like a lot of people, Acorn Antiques remains my favourite Victoria Wood piece. She works so many laughs into this spoof soap opera set in Manchesterford where everything goes wrong. The writing, the dodgy camerawork, the costuming and particularly the performances of Julie Walters, Celia Imrie, Duncan Preston and Victoria Wood herself are all priceless. I also love Pat and Margaret from 1994. Again in this, she’s so observant about siblings, parents, relationships, sex and class. She balances humour and sadness like few others. What a loss that she died so young.
How does it feel to be back working at Sheffield Theatres?
I feel so grateful. It’s my third time working at Sheffield Theatres and each time I’m struck by the passion of the people who work here in all departments. They always go the extra mile. I’m sure it’s been a tough time for them as it’s been for everyone in our sector as we battle to be seen as viable and crucial to our recovery from this awful and challenging period. It’s my favourite place to work. We’ve a wonderful cast and creative team and I’m really looking forward to seeing and hearing a Crucible audience again. They complete the picture.
Did you know much about Talent before reading the script?
I had never read it but I did see Victoria Wood’s own revival of it at the Menier Chocolate Factory abut twelve years ago. In preparing for this version, I watched some snippets of the 1979 TV adaptation with Wood and Walters which was trimmed in length. My main focus was the playscript. Combing through it and trying to become as familiar as possible with it and with the many popular culture references from the period it contains. It truly conjures up a fascinating place and time. The fact that it was originally commissioned by the Crucible in 1978 feels auspicious – in a way the play is coming home.
The play centres around the theme of women’s experience - and often resilience - in the entertainment industry of the late 70s/early 80s. How do you feel this will resonate in the time we’re in now?
Well, it will be interesting to gauge how far we may have come and also how much progress is still required, even over forty years on. The play taps into the multifaceted-ness of being a woman, being a mother, a daughter, girlfriend, confidante, etc. Victoria Wood ensures that Julie and Maureen dominate the play; vast swathes of the show are on their shoulders. It’s got wonderful things to say about the changeable yet enduring nature of female friendship, especially ones forged during schooldays. Victoria Wood was always such a forensic observer and Julie Walters said that her writing “always felt close to home.” I’m sure what happens to these women is a complex mixture of events that really happened and Wood’s imagination. Hopefully, the male-dominance of the entertainment world has been chipped away at since but the way in which women are seen as disposable and their opinions overlooked endures to this day in many places. In Talent, Wood champions women and ensures that they have the last laugh.