“I’ll never have a box of sex tricks
Or be made to hum like a Scalextric”
It’s part of the unwritten contract of being a Northerner (by birth at least in my case) that you love Victoria Wood. Her status as national treasure is sometimes debated as her particular style of retro-comedy doesn’t always appeal to everyone and is met by not a little snobbery, but it has never bothered me as I find her genuinely hilarious. I have never come so close to having to leave a theatre because of laughing so much as I did in Acorn Antiques The Musical, me and the gentleman next to me (who I didn’t know) were in hysterics pretty much throughout that show and I still love watching it today. Wood has now written a new show, The Day We Sang, as one of the pieces premiering at the Manchester International Festival and though it didn’t quite reach those same giddy heights, I still loved it.
Wood has taken a real story as her starting point, that of the Manchester Schools Children’s Choir joining forces with the Hallé orchestra to record a highly successful version of Purcell’s Nymphs and Shepherds at the Free Trade Hall in 1929, and whilst we see the kids gearing up to this momentous occasion, she has spun off her own narrative to create the show. Some members of that ensemble gather to make a documentary to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the recording and whilst there’s much amusing snobbery at a reunion where people’s lives have taken vastly different turns, a relationship starts to form between two of them, Tubby and Enid, as they reflect on how disillusioned with life they have become since that early high point.
Vincent Franklin and Jenna Russell as this pair form a stellar partnership as he thinks he’s finally found his soulmate and gives a hugely sympathetic performance of a man finally daring to dream of happiness – the moment he first listens to his recorded boy’s voice was a thing of tear-jerking beauty. Russell’s Enid is a classic Wood heroine, also regretting the life not lived, the sordid affair she is conducting with her boss and best of all, bemoaning her sexual frustration and the name she is saddled with in the night’s best song. Lorraine Bruce and Gerard Hogan deserve mention for their monstrous snobs, getting huge laughs with the objects of their pretention.
Much of the beauty of Wood’s work comes from its very human side, a warmth that comes from recognition of the humour to be found in the ordinary. And whilst that is true for most of The Day We Sang, there is also a lot of retro references in here that passed me by due to my (relative) youth: I can just about remember Berni Inns but had never heard of a Golden Egg. I didn’t feel like I lost out on a lot in this respect – the lyrical brilliance around the menu is timeless – but it did mean that people around me were chuckling a lot more, able to embrace its nostalgia more than I.
There’s such a refreshing lack of pretension to Victoria Wood’s efforts here, and her work in general, and the simple directness of the good-natured warmth of its message meant I found it irresistible. The songs are just brilliant – honestly I can’t think of a funnier lyricist – the choir of school-kids are adorable and the adult cast aren’t half bad either. With a firmly critical eye, one could say that the lack of sophistication goes a little too far, things are a little too simplistic. And as Wood is also directing, her presence is felt strongly throughout where an outside guiding hand might temper that a little. But given this is the premiere of this piece, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a slightly retooled version of this show taking the West End by storm, never mind Manchester.