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That Day We Sang Reviewed: MIF 2011

Joan Davies's cockles are warmed by Victoria Wood

Published on July 13th 2011.

That Day We Sang Reviewed: MIF 2011

The Confidential MIF rating: 14/20

Originality 2/5; Performances (acting, singing etc) 4/5; Audience delight: 4/5; Production 4/5

Victoria’s Wood’s 'That Day We Sang' presented at The Opera House as part of Manchester International Festival is a delight.

This is a great show for Manchester and a triumph for MIF Creative whose brief is to bring artists and local people to work together.   

Wood, who both writes and directs, uses her talent for detailed observation of the ordinary quirks and puzzles of ordinary life and serves them in her familiar dish of mildly mocking and self-deprecating nostalgia, pricking the minor pretensions that accompanied our earlier years. 

Berni Inns figure largely, their menus still imprinted in the memories of at least half of the audience.  

The story is based around the Manchester School Children’s Choir 1929 recording of Henry Purcell’s Nymphs and Shepherds. This was a million seller, a popular choice for radio’s Children’s Favourites well into the sixties, as was the B-side:  the rather more lively Humperdinck’s dance duet from Hansel and Gretel.

Then as now Manchester’s ability to engage with ‘high culture’, to enhance it and to take it to a wide audience came as a surprise to many, though probably not many Mancunians.  

'That Day We Sang' looks back at the experience through the eyes of two fictional characters, ‘Tubby’ and Enid, both single and somewhat shy, who meet when Granada TV brings choir members together to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the recording. 

There are some wonderful recreations of 1969.  The real 1969 of buttoned-up middle age, when the better-off neighbours boasted of their colour-television and you could eat your sandwiches in Piccadilly Gardens while looking at flowers rather than a concrete wall.  

The two stories are cleverly woven together, the cast are excellent and the design, accurately representing the stage of the Free Trade Hall where the recording was made, gets the dreariness of the two periods right.  It’s brightened up by the use of projections, and by the children, all recruited from North Manchester schools, who act and sing as their 1929 predecessors.  

Jenna Russell is a strong-voiced Enid, convincing in her initial shyness and lack of confidence, and Lorraine Bruce shows fine comic timing in her two supporting roles.

Raif Clarke as young Jimmy Baker, poor and fatherless, and possessed of a beautiful voice, gets the contrasts just right; he has the potential to be a little naughty and cheeky, but accepts the discipline needed to be part of such a successful venture. 

Vincent Franklin, as ‘Tubby’, as Jimmy forty years on calls himself, is superb. A very average looking chap with middle-aged spread and a habit of self-deprecation to dwarf most, even in Manchester, he sings and he dances his way into Enid’s and into the audience’s affections.  The Hallé Youth Orchestra plays, wonderfully well.

Wood5Victoria Wood has penned most of the songs, with her usual eye for comic rhyme, tuxedo and libido, and common memory. Neither Humperdinck nor Purcell appear to get a credit in the programme.  The original recordings live on, available on YouTube and MP3s. 

This is a great show for Manchester and a triumph for MIF Creative whose brief is to bring artists and local people to work together.  Everyone, not just the proud parents, seems to leave the theatre with a warm glow, even young people who didn’t get all the references.  It answers those critics who argue that MIF is not for ordinary Mancunians.  

How far it can travel and how long it will endure are less certain.  Stories of Northern childhood, like Billy Elliot and Kes, have proved they can command a wide audience, beyond initial expectations.

Perhaps to travel and survive this story needs to be made into a film with a stronger focus on childhood, and on the impact of such experiences on the future adults. Experienced in taking both roles of writer and director Victoria Wood can ensure that her voice speaks clearly, but another eye might have removed the occasional repetition of ideas and made room for more depth. 

As it stands it reminds of us some great eternal truths….  Pineapple still goes well with gammon, Black Forest Gateau is still over-rated, and the middle-aged can still find love when they allow change into their lives. And children should be encouraged to sing. 

Victoria Wood’s “That Day We Sang” is at The Opera House until Sunday 17 July with a mix of evening and matinee performances.  Check the website for details  www.mif.co.uk

Thanks to Joel Fildes for the photos.




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5 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

tblzebraJuly 13th 2011.

Good review Joan. I'm a VW fan, always have been, but I think this needs tweaking if it's to continue away from MIF/Manchester.

Less of her repetitive clever word-play and more main character development might help, e.g. why would a so-called buttoned up P.A. (not secretary) sh@g her boss once a week for years, then fall for a boring 'nice' man? Tubby's character was too much like Tony in Dinnerladies - he even sounded like him at times.

I too think she needs a collaborator if this is to go any further - within 5 minutes you 'know' it's hers. The dance numbers were also very similar to those of Acorn Antiques: The Musical!.

Calum McGJuly 14th 2011.

What's wrong with knowing it's hers?! Surely that's a good thing...! I'm going on Saturday. Great review - cannot wait.

tblzebraJuly 14th 2011.

It's all a bit cliched Ali, same old, same old. I loved it, but the formula starts to wear thin after a while, e.g. her last Christmas Special was fairly dire.

Calum McGJuly 19th 2011.

Some of the best artists are formulaic and that's what gleans them fans... The Two Ronnies (ridiculous) ... Dom Jolly (slapstick) ... Jack Dee (miserable but funny). Mr or Mrs Zebra, you say the formula wears thin - yet you loved it, so that tells me same old same old delivered! Congrats to Victoria. I went on Saturday and loved it. I'd say Joan's marks are spot on. I <3 MIF :D

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