wed 24/07/2024

That Day We Sang, Opera House, Manchester | reviews, news & interviews

That Day We Sang, Opera House, Manchester

That Day We Sang, Opera House, Manchester

Victoria Wood's play with songs recalls a famous children's choir recording

'That Day We Sang': Vincent Franklin and Raif Clarke play older and younger versions of the same choristerImages by Joel Fildes

The creative seed, once planted, can take a long time to germinate and come into bloom – in this case 37 years. For Victoria Wood, 1974 was a seminal year – she turned 21, she won New Faces and she saw a Thames TV documentary about the Manchester Children’s Choir who famously sang Purcell’s "Nymphs and Shepherds" with the Halle under Sir Hamilton Harty in the Free Trade Hall.

That recording, featuring 250 children from 50 Manchester schools, was in 1929 and the resulting 78rpm Columbia record became an unexpected hit, selling a million copies. The documentary which left such an impression on Victoria Wood reunited members of the choir 45 years on.

When she was asked, being born and bred locally, by Manchester International Festival organisers if she would like to write something Manchester-related, she remembered the choir - and has come up with what she calls “a play with songs”. And, since the old Free Trade Hall is now part of a hotel, it was decided to stage it at the Opera House, the nearest venue a couple of hundred yards down the street. Creditably, another choir of nearly 100 local schoolchildren has been formed to re-enact the big event and the build-up to it. In addition, she attempts to interweave a soft-edged love story about two members of the choir 40 years on.

So, the action flits between 1929, when the children are rehearsing and excitedly getting ready for the big day, and 1969, when Tubby (Vincent Franklin), now an overweight insurance man, and Enid (Jenna Russell, pictured below), a put-upon secretary, meet again on the stage of the Free Trade Hall for a local TV show to share memories of their time in the choir and reflect upon the intervening years.

That Day We SangTubby sees the chance to put disappointments behind him and reach out for happiness with Enid, who is locked into a boring job and an every-Tuesday-lunchtime romp with her lustful married boss. It is all played out on a tiered set of a mock-up of the interior of the old Free Trade Hall by designer Lez Brotherston, with images of old Manchester and video clips on a large screen behind and domestic scenes with basic furniture shuffled sparsely into the foreground. This proves to be extremely awkward, particularly towards the end of the show when Tubby and Enid are finalising their relationship in front of the children’s choir assembled for their big day.

After a pretty tedious first half, the show does promise to take off, with two or three numbers worthy of a musical. Tubby meets Enid in the old Piccadilly Gardens for a packed lunch and they imagine that they are Fred and Ginger. Half a dozen other people in the park, including the inevitable policeman, milkman and workman, join in and we get a jolly pastiche of an American musical.

Then Wood, who also directs, provides a vintage song, reminiscent of her unforgettable "Let's Do It" routine, in which buttoned-up Enid let’s herself go and does a fandango with a masked lover. Quite out of character, but great entertainment, almost worthy of VW herself, which is saying something. The junior star of the show is 11-year-old Raif Clarke, making his professional debut, who plays the part of Tubby as a boy, Jimmy Baker. He is perky, sings well, even though there’s a danger of his getting overwhelmed by the orchestra in the pit, and dances a mean Charleston with Tubby.

Finally, of course, after two and a half hours, we come to the singing of "Nymphs and Shepherds" by half the choir, since the children alternate show by show. Sir Hamilton Harty, sensing a possible hit, is given the unlikely comment, “I thought it was worth a punt.” So, what we get is a limited imitation of the original – just over 40 children with the impressive 30-strong Halle Youth Orchestra under Andrew Gourlay. A sort of classical tribute act. However, faithful credit is paid to the woman who coached the original choir and taught the scruffs to sing posh, Gertrude Riall (the excellent Alison Pargeter).

That Day We Sang certainly has flashes of the Wood hallmarks – nostalgia, humour, sentimentality and, above all, community spirit. In the end, it is a well-intentioned, homely, tender Manchester play for a Manchester audience, who lapped it up last night, eager to laugh and even applaud after every scene.  But, for once, the Wood magic doesn’t work. Perhaps she set herself the impossible task of mixing archival documentary with an imagined, albeit predictable, midlife relationship which hardly stirs the emotions. The two tales run in parallel without coming together successfully.

In the end it is a well-intentioned, homely, tender Manchester play for a Manchester audience, who lapped it up

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It is extremely disappointing that nowhere in all the publicity and hype surrounding this show is any credit given to Walter Carroll. As Manchester's first music adviser he was the vision and the brains behind the formation of the Manchester School Children's choir in 1925 and its collaboration with the equally visionary Hamilton Harty, leading to the famous recording on Tuesday 18th June 1929. Basil Howitt (Walter and His Daughters, 2006, Forsyth)

Could someone help me out here please? My Mother Jean Cotton was born in 1924 and she was supposed to have sung on the Nymphs and Shepherds recording but unfortunately missed it due to having pneumonia on the day it was recorded.She remembers being bitterly disappointed as she had been practising for weeks before.She said she would have been around 11/12 years of age at the time. She lived in Weaste and went to Seedley Street school. Her teacher was Mrs Rampling If the recording was made in 1929 she would have only have been 5 years old.I would be grateful if someone could solve the mystery please. Many thanks

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