When I was 21, I spent an enjoyable year working as an usher at Manchester’s Palace Theatre and Opera House. It was the equivalent of a ‘year off’, a bit of fun with a bit of cash before I became a proper grown-up. I met some wonderful people during that time, one of whom is still a mate today. I saw some terrible shows (There’s a Girl in My Soup was a real low point) and some absolutely corkers (Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake springs to mind). And I had the privilege of working behind the scenes in two of Manchester’s oldest theatres.
Long-running shows meant you had to sit through the same production night after night (magical Mr Mistoffelees not so magical the 300th time) but there was also the opportunity to enjoy some of your heroes for free. I’d always loved Victoria Wood. Born in Prestwich and a Bury Grammar School alumna, Wood has always embodied the North, whether poking a bit of gentle fun at Northerners’ idiosyncrasies or celebrating the lives of its residents. But when her one-woman show came to the Opera House all those years ago, she scored a few cheap laughs at the expense of us ushers. Much of our work was physically demanding and we only earned a tenner a night so to hear a comedy heroine use us as the butt of her jokes wasn’t nice. It rankled. And it tainted my respect for this national treasure.
Fast forward 16 years and I am sitting in Manchester’s Royal Exchange theatre waiting to see Wood’s That Day We Sang, billed as ‘a big-hearted Manchester love story for all the family’ and based on a true tale. In June 1929, 260 members of the Manchester School Children’s Choir travelled by bus and tram to the Free Trade Hall to record Henry Purcell’s setting of Thomas Shadwell’s Nymphs and Shepherds with the Halle Orchestra, conducted by Sir Hamilton Harty. They were scared stiff but managed to make a recording that can still be heard today. Wood came across the story in 1974. It was a seminal year for the young comedian: she turned 21, won New Faces and saw a Thames TV documentary about the Manchester Children’s Choir.
By 2011, That Day We Sang was being staged at the Manchester International Festival. It received a rapturous reception. Critics applauded the show’s “humour” and “heart” and lavished praise on Wood’s “unpretentious” musical drama about a middle-aged insurance salesman from Manchester.
Wood herself describes That Day We Sang as “a play with songs and dancing and insurance men. It’s a love story… played against the background of The Wimpy, The Golden Egg, Piccadilly Gardens…it’s a very Mancunian story”. She’s certainly right about that. References abound to Manchester landmarks and the dialogue is proper Northern, peppered with Wood’s trademark witticisms that make you laugh out loud. My personal favourite came from one of the characters struggling to keep to her diet. Popping a sweet in her mouth, she declaimed: “It’s only a diabetic pastille, two calories.”
It must be nerve-wracking to perform on press night, particularly on an evening when Wood herself is it the audience. Certainly at the start, the cast didn’t seem entirely at ease; James Quinn as boorish Frank Brierley in particular rushed his dialogue which didn’t do justice to Wood’s beautifully-honed words. By the second half, confidence had returned to the ensemble and there were some stand-out performances from Anna Francolini as timid Enid, Sally Bankes as her friend Pauline and Dean Andrews (currently on the tele box in Last Tango in Halifax) in the role of lovelorn Tubby Baker. William Haresceugh, playing Tubby as a little lad, was outstanding. However, it was perhaps to the cast’s disadvantage that That Day We Sang followed Sweeney Todd. The singing of Sondheim’s songs was some of the best I’ve ever heard at the Exchange and the current production suffers by comparison. It was also unfortunate that the music last night was a touch too loud, drowning out both spoken dialogue and musical verses. An ensemble with stronger voices might have overcome it.
Some considerable thought had been devoted to costumes and a set that basked in a beige glow, mirroring the vanilla lives of Enid and Tubby who teeter on the brink of a brighter future. And the choreography for Francolini’s star turn in her song Enid was perfect.
So, have I forgiven Wood for her transgression in 1997? Erm, no. But it says something for the quality of That Day We Sang that I would still wholeheartedly recommend that you go and see it. Perhaps wait until later in the run though. I’m convinced that the production will be funnier, louder and slicker after it’s had time to bed in. As Enid says during the play, “Two middle-aged people sitting on a bench in Piccadilly Gardens – it’s not exactly Roman Holiday is it?” Nope, it’s not. It’s a bloody sight more enjoyable than that.
Review by Helen Nugent
What: That Day We Sang
Where: Manchester’s Royal Exchange
When: until January 18, 2014