A middle-aged, nondescript man listens to a recording that was made by a choir he was in as a child, forty years ago. He hasn’t heard it in over thirty years, and all of a sudden he finds he’s crying. He can’t articulate why.
The recording is real, the character is fictional. It’s less than five minutes into the first act of Victoria Wood’s new musical play That Day We Sang, which is currently being performed at the Opera House in Manchester as part of the Manchester International Festival, and it’s both the play’s key scene and a neat encapsulation of the effect this utterly beguiling piece of theatre is going to have. As a piece of writing, That Day We Sang is a little on the slight side, and more than a little obvious – but it’s also surprisingly moving.
Based around a notional 1969 reunion of people who, as children, participated in the 1929 Manchester Schools recording of Henry Purcell’s Nymphs and Shepherds, That Day We Sang moves backwards and forwards between 1929 and 1969, juxtaposing the choir’s rehearsals for the performance and recording with the tentative, sweetly sad friendship (and on his part, would-be romance) between Tubby and Enid, two lonely people who, as adults, have a nagging feeling that nothing they’ve done since has quite matched the excitement of that glorious performance in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall.
Yes, it’s an obvious story, and no, there is precisely no suspense as the play moves towards its conclusion – we know the recording will be a triumph because we’ve all heard it, and we assume that Tubby will eventually win Enid’s heart because that’s how things work in romantic comedy and this play plays by the rules, right down to the character of the gruff, strict schoolteacher who turns out, at a key moment, to have a heart of gold. You can see the plot coming a mile off, and it doesn’t matter in the slightest.
The thing is, this sort of thing is Wood’s stock-in-trade. Like Alan Bennett or Jack Rosenthal or Willy Russell, she has a knack for finding the yearning as well as the humour in the lives of ordinary people, and she has the odd gift of being able to write scenes that are simultaneously raucously funny and achingly sad. She’s from Greater Manchester herself, she knows (and loves) the territory, her songwriting talents extend far, far beyond the two-minute comedy ditties with which she made her name on television in the 1970s, and she never condescends; what she’s written, essentially, is a love-letter to music in schools, tied to a sweetly charming love story. In lesser hands, this could easily have been a procession of syrupy clichés, but it’s not. It’s a quirky but quietly lovely musical comedy about everyday people living everyday lives. And you can’t help but love a show that contains an extended production number set at a ghastly dinner in a Berni Inn, whose lyrics describe Black Forest gateau as “cake in drag”.
It helps that the choir – drawn from four Manchester primary schools – is wonderful. The children sing beautifully (and, in a couple of important rehearsal scenes, also manage to pull off singing badly with conviction, which isn’t that easy to do when you’re capable of singing well), are absolutely natural and charming onstage, and are a credit to their teachers and to Anna Flannagan, the production’s choir master. The Hallé Youth Orchestra do a superb job as the pit band, and it’s sadly a treat, these days, to go to a musical and hear thirty-one musicians all playing real instruments, with not a single synth string pad in earshot. The adult actors, too, are absolutely terrific, led by Vincent Franklin and Jenna Russell’s pitch-perfect performances as Tubby and Enid. Russell is particularly funny in an act two number in which Enid rails, in the form of a tango, against the lowered expectations that come with a name as nondescript of hers (“You won’t have a box of sex tricks/You won’t hum like a Scalextric” – musical theatre pedants take note, this is not a false rhyme, kids around here commonly pronounce “scalextric” as ending with an X sound rather than a hard C), but it’s the heartbroken look on her face as she tells a glib TV interviewer that the experience of making the record in 1929 was “joyful… just joyful” that you’ll carry away with you after the show. And the finale, in which Wood cleverly works a duet for Tubby and Enid in counterpoint against the choir’s performance of “Nymphs and Shepherds”, is simply gorgeous.
Whether it’ll have a life after the Manchester International Festival is another question, although it deserves to. It’s not quite perfect – there are places where the pace could pick up a little, Young Tubby’s first song needs to happen earlier in the opening scene (and unfortunately is the weakest song in the show), and the first duet between Enid and Tubby is not the greatest thing Wood has ever written. But these are quibbles; this show works. It reminded me, oddly, of She Loves Me, although it’s quite different in structure and tone: both shows pack an emotional wallop that’s far greater than the sum of their parts.
And where else will you find a musical with scenes set in a Golden Egg, a Wimpy, and on a bench in Piccadilly Gardens?