Based on the true story of Vivian Nicholson, whose husband Keith won £152,319 on the pools (a sum that would be worth in excess of £2 million today), Spend Spend Spend is a modern morality tale in which two naïve working-class northerners are thrust overnight into a world of hitherto unimaginable wealth, which they prove wholly unable to handle. This is demonstrated from the start when Vivian, suffering from severe stage fright, blurts out during the formal presentation of her winnings that she’s going to “spend spend spend!”, thus creating an impression of selfish hedonism that’s largely at odds with the complex characterisation that Jack Rosenthal goes on to give her.
The play’s structure is complex, beginning with the Pools win in 1961 and eventually spanning the early 1950s to the mid-1970s, but rarely in strict chronological sequence (for instance, the actual process of filling out the Pools form comes towards the end, after we already know Keith’s ultimate fate). Much attention is paid to Vivian’s upbringing and the resulting psychological development: the daughter of a short-tempered miner, she learned the hard way that every penny needed counting, and her idea of a luxurious gift was a set of cheap plastic nail files. It was undoubtedly a hard life, but it was also one based on certainty and cold economic logic. Once that’s taken away, is it any wonder that she goes off the rails?
Rosenthal’s other main theme is the ultimate impossibility of bridging the class divide. In a particularly poignant speech, Keith articulates his frustration that he’s not being treated with more respect, constantly repeating that he’s “a very wealthy chap” as though he was a scion of the aristocracy – but his Yorkshire accent and the setting inescapably jar with the desired impression. Vivian splashes out on new clothes, cars and elaborate hairstyles, but by continuing to live in her native Castleford, she sticks out a mile, and the neighbours resent her for it. But she’d be equally out of place in almost any other setting, so what’s the point of moving?
Rosenthal’s subtle, sympathetic script and Susan Littler’s superb performance did much to counter the overwhelming tabloid impression of her as a money-grubbing freeloader who got lucky. One of Rosenthal’s biggest critical successes, the play went on to achieve its own equivalent of a pools win, with four BAFTAs including Best Single Play and Best Actress.
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