My mum never goes to the theatre but the offer of my spare ticket for the world premiere of Victoria Wood’s musical play, That Day We Sang, was met with an instant acceptance: “Victoria Wood? Oh yes! I’ll like that.”
Indeed my mum did like it. In fact, along with the sell-out audience at Manchester’s Opera House Theatre, we all blinking LOVED it. That Day We Sang is Victoria Wood’s first production for the prestigious Manchester International Festival and hopefully not her last. It is a charming, very funny and at times, painfully poignant tale of the main character Tubby Baker’s rediscovery of youthful courage.
We meet Tubby, a gentle, single, middle-aged insurance salesman (played by the superb Vincent Franklin) when he is invited to take part in a TV documentary celebrating the 40th anniversary of the recording of Henry Purcell’s Nymphs and Shepherds by the Manchester Schoolchildren’s Choir. As a boy he was one of the 250 working class children to sing in the choir and ‘that day’ filled him a happiness he clearly has not experienced since. As Tubby says, recalling the day of the recording: “It was joyful.”
We are taken back in time, very cleverly too, thanks to some brilliant interlocking film footage and original photography on a huge screen on the rear of the stage. The young Tubby (played by the sensational Raif Clarke) is nothing like the man he grew into. He is mischievous, irrepressible and full of cheekiness.
Yet he struggles with his single mum’s hostility towards him singing with the famous orchestra. She has her reasons – a failed love affair with a singer in a band, whom we gather is Tubby’s father. It is a touching element of the story, particularly when the young Tubby sings the excellent “I Want to Make You Proud” – generating many ‘awws’ and ‘ahhs’ from the audience.
Also at the documentary recording are three other former choristers – the obnoxious, uppity and yet hilarious Brierlys (Frank and Dorothy – superbly played by Gerard Horan and Lorraine Bruce) who consider themselves quite continental… as they own a continental quilt!
Then we have Enid Sutcliffe, a sexually repressed spinster whose grey and beige life since the recording of Nymphs and Shepherds has gone on to revolve around low fat yogurt, her obsessive-compulsive mother and a tragically dissatisfying affair with her married boss – who fits her in for a quickie on Tuesday afternoons -charming. Jenna Russell gives a dynamite performance throughout.
Without spoiling all the fun, Tubby and Enid strike up an alliance after an agonising evening with the Brierlys at a Berni Inn – complete with a hilarious gammon supper. Recalling the courage he had as a lad, Tubby is filled with a new lust for life now and a refusal to let love pass him by. He has fallen for Enid and he is going to fight for her. Together they sing Wood’s magical “If We Were Ginger and Fred” and to the cheers from the audience, they might as well have been.
Wood got the initial idea for That Day We Sang when she watched an ITV documentary about the recording of the song which, she says, she has always had a sentimental affection for. In That Day We Sang we get the full Victoria Woods’ works – laugh out loud one-liners (I defy you to not crack up when a box of mint Matchmakers goes missing), wonderful songs (worthy in time and with some more funding perhaps of a grand scale West End show? Eat your heart out Billy Elliot) – and a heart-melting story that reaches a wide audience, especially those who recall the chintz, changes and aspirations of northern Britain in the 1960s.
An occasional criticism of the Manchester International Festival (MIF) is that is too arty and not ‘for locals’. Well, Wood’s offering completely defies this. It is practically a homage to Manchester; a wonderful gift to the city and to all those who get to see it.
That Day We Sang runs until 17 July at the Opera House Manchester. For info and tickets go to: www.mif.co.uk
Special credit to the children in the show’s choir made up of local youngsters from several North Manchester comprehensives – Bowker Vale Primary School, Crab Lane Primary School, Pike Fold Primary School and The Co-operative Academy of Manchester.
That Day We Sang is supported by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation to pioneer new ways of engaging people in high quality arts activities, as part of its cultural understanding theme ‘to help improve people’s perception of each other by providing opportunities for interaction through culture and between cultures’.