There’s never a bad time for some Victoria Wood, but right now feels like a particularly good one. Given the uneasy times we’re living through, her warm, grounded humour comes as an especially welcome tonic. And since, sadly, the woman herself is no longer around to entertain us, it falls to writer-performer Julia Knight to bring her to life on stage and help us rejoice in one of Britain’s best-loved comics.
That’s no easy task, but it’s one that Knight is more than equal to. The second she opens her mouth and Wood’s persona spills out, it puts a smile on the face, as only nostalgic recognition can. But rather than pay straight tribute, Knight has given the show an interesting framing – she plays Maddie North, a tribute artiste, playing Victoria Wood, and wondering out loud, via vlogs to her small bunch of fans, whether she’s lost her own identity in the process. It’s all rather meta and one imagines Wood herself chuckling along at the concept. After all, Maddie’s not a million miles from something she would have dreamt up herself – a salt-of-the-earth character chasing stardom from her mum’s spare bedroom in Cleethorpes.
Maddy’s vlogs, ostensibly done at the behest of the BBC in lieu of the tour they were sending her on, act as jumping off points for some of Wood’s sketches, songs and characters. Maddy does say she’s not supposed to be performing on the vlogs, but evidently she can’t help herself, and therein lies her identity problem.
It’s not a greatest hits set as such, more a series of memory-joggers for those who remember the originals. It’s possibly too fragmentary for the uninitiated to fully appreciate Wood’s genius, but Knight acts as a great conduit for the material. There are a lot of rhymes and timings to nail in Victoria Wood songs and Knight gets them bang on, with a flourish delivered at the right moment. Northern Song is a particular treat.
The weakness, if there is one, lies in the vlog confessionals. They serve well as linking material, but the expectation is for them to do more to advance Maddy’s story, to gradually unfold into something deeper. Instead, we’re left trapped on the surface. We learn that many of her vlog subscribers think she is Victoria Wood, but that says more about them than it does about her. We know that she feels she’s lost her identity, but we don’t feel enough of what that identity is. Her back story provides us some factual details – she worked at Butlin’s, she toured with fake Lenny Henry and fake Lee Evans – which gives a sense of her rung on the ladder, but it’s not enough for us to truly connect with the character in front of us.
None of which diminishes the joy of hearing some old favourites, impressively delivered. On an early Sunday afternoon here in Pleasance Courtyard, it’s as welcome and warming as a nice cup of tea (and a macaroon).