THAT DAY WE SANG – Royal Exchange, Manchester

A JEWEL FROM THE NORTH, AN ECHO FROM THE PAST

Forget Acorn Antiques, fun though that was. Victoria Wood’s stage musical, written a couple of years ago for the Manchester Festival, has the trademark wit and observation running alongside the other strain of her genius:  the ability to show everyday uncomplaining pain, and salute bleak lives as they grope towards late-flowering redemption. Brilliant, simple, beautiful.

Pure Wood, it belies the theory that musicals only emerge from infinite rewrites and much squabbling and switching lyricists.   It deals with the real moment in 1929 when a choir of Manchester schoolchildren, many the poorest,  recorded Purcell’s “Nymphs and Shepherds” with the Halle Orchestra. Listen, watch, have a weep: it’s on   http://tinyurl.com/o4dv4au.

Some were reunited forty years on at Granada TV,  and Wood’s four fictional characters begin there, hearing the music again after years. Frank and Dorothy live in a carapace of prosperous 1960’s Mancunian smugness (“Die-stamping doesn’t just happen, you know”) and patronize Tubby and Enid ,who have never met although once they harmonized: girls and boys were separated in the ‘20s).  Tubby is a bravely joking, selfconscious middle-aged bachelor with a bit of a gut,  who looked after his mother till her death.  Only in the flashbacks to 1929  do we glimpse the bitter woman he has been jollying along:  abandoned by a feckless band-singer husband, she  banned his father’s record and tried to keep him from the children’s choir.

The flashback of his audition, wonderfully sung by one of the rotating young cast,  provides a shivery Billy-Elliot  moment of recognition:  a child of poverty with high art in his bones.   We see Enid as repressed and awkward, drab victim of a carelessly controlling boss-lover.  “Where is that bright eyed child? When was I reconciled / To seeing the day today in shades of beige and grey?”.  In another unforgettable barnstorming solo (rhyming sex-tricks with Scalextrix) Anna Francolini rises from wistfulness into a number with wicked echoes of Chicago. Stops the show.

There are nice retro touches: a Golden Egg cafe and the stellar number when the posher couple “journey in to the Berni Inn” .  A revolving table surrounded by gateau-wielding waiters heralds a patronizing chorus of “You’ll have the learn the blarney and fancy words like garni”.   But the simple round staging makes it all the more credible when we flash back, and fifty grey-shabby children are having their Lancashire vowels ironed out by the choirmistress because “You don’t wear hobnailed boots to a party”.  Sometimes the children’s choir simply sit watching as the adult Tubby and Enid cautiously move towards one another or sorrow alone:  there’s a real frisson when adult Tubby duets with his brave child self.

Every role, though, has its glories.  The bible-bashing wooden-legged choir supervisor, ten years back from the WW1 trenches, is a lovely creation from the moment when he first snaps “Excuses! The primrose path to hell! When they came for Jesus in Gethsemane he didn’t make excuses, hopped up on the cross and took his punishment!”   Yet his one-line redemption too is unutterably moving.

I loved its Festival version, but it shines even brighter in Sarah Frankcom’s intimate production.  I hope it will tour, and move south.  Good news that BBC2 is televising it next year, though changing the title to “Tubby and Enid”.  Which is a  decision so muttonheaded that one must sorrowfully assume it came from a TV executive.  For this is no mere middle-aged rom-com,  but a meditation on life’s attrition, the long slow sad loss of childhood’s glee,  and the role of memory and courage in reclaiming it.

box office 0161 8339833  to   18 Jan

rating:  five. I mean it.     5 Meece Rating

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