If there is a whole mythology around the incredible story of Spend Spend Spend pools winner Viv Nicholson, that’s probably because Viv seemed to prefer the myth herself.
In later years she would delight in pointing out that only she and one other woman had been the subject of a hit musical in their own lifetime – and that the other was fashion legend Coco Chanel.
As she would point out, that wasn’t bad going for a lass from Castleford whose only claim to fame was that she won and lost a fortune and generated a mountain of tabloid headlines along the way to financial ruin.
She might also, three years after her death, be amused by the fact that while the Coco Chanel musical – with lyrics by My Fair Lady’s Alan Jay Lerner, music by the legendary Andre Previn and Katharine Hepburn as the star – has been consigned to theatre history, her show still finds an audience. The latest revival of the award-winning Spend Spend Spend – what else would you call a Viv Nicholson musical? – is presented by Handsworth and Hallam Theatre Company at Sheffield’s Montgomery Theatre from June 13 to 16.
Like all musicals, it probably prefers the mythology to the frequently grim reality but there’s enough of the truth to make it a recognisable version of the remarkable lady’s life.
The truth is that in September 1961 young miner Keith Nicholson won £152, 319 – the equivalent today of around £3 million – on the football pools.
But it was his wife Viv who stole the spotlight when, on receiving the prize cheque from Bruce Forsyth, she announced that she was going to spend spend spend – and then proceeded to do just that!
Seduced by her new-found notoriety, Viv found herself alienated from her working class past as her spending spiralled out of control.
When Keith was killed in a car crash, the fortune rapidly evaporated and Viv was told that what was left and everything she had bought actually belonged to Keith’s estate. Viv did win a three-year legal battle to gain £34,000 but that went the way of all the rest, as a result of more binge spending, taxes, legal fees, unpaid bills and bad investments.
It’s a Cinderella story with a hard edge and one that Viv herself loved, travelling all over the country to see revivals of the show, usually getting very vocally involved when the big scenes and tragedies unfolded.
Handsworth and Hallam’s director Claire Harriott actually experienced the full impact of Viv’s extraordinary personality because she was in a revival of the musical at Sheffield’s Lyceum more than a decade ago which saw Viv turning up at rehearsals and the opening night.
“She sat beside me and when she heard songs like Canary in a Cage and Who’s Gonna Love Me, she sat and cried like she was living it all again,” Claire recalls.
“She just loved it, she loved all the attention, she just loved being there and seeing her story presented. Watching her response, it just proved to me how raw it all still was for her and how Keith was still very much the love of her life.
“I have found myself wondering what would have happened if Keith hadn’t died. Would it have been a different story?
“They were a very volatile couple and the money didn’t help, but would they have stayed together?”
In the show, the starring is part is played by Danni Birks Hibbert as the older Viv, looking back on the years of excess, and Beth Atkin as the young wife who grabbed the headlines.
“The show doesn’t particularly portray Viv in a fantastic or favourable light,” Claire points out. “You sort of feel you should feel sorry for her because of the life she had and how it all went horribly wrong, but then that’s the life she chose and I don’t think she would have had it any other way.
“She didn’t come from a good place and she didn’t end in a good place but she did have one hell of a journey and what I am trying to do with our version is present something that is true to her life.”
And it is a story that, as Claire has discovered, continues to resonate. “Just a few days ago at work somebody said they were going to go out and spend spend spend,” she says.
“All these years later, people are still quoting Viv even if they don’t actually realise it – and that’s truly iconic!”
n For tickets, call 07586 293546, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.hhtcsheffield.co.uk