“It’s not exactly Roman Holiday, is it?”
Victoria Wood’s That Day We Sang premiered at the Manchester International Festival in 2011 and it fair near captured my heart with its archetypal northern charm and its determination to find the special in the mundane. I wrote about the show back then but Sarah Frankcom’s production for the Royal Exchange features a reworked and recast version of this play with songs which has proven to be a canny choice indeed for the Manchester venue’s festive offering.
The show tells the story of how a group of Mancunian schoolchildren ended up performing with the Hallé Orchestra in 1929 on a Purcell recording and also the results of a get-together 40 years later for a Granada TV documentary. The two strands interweave and overlap as two of the choir engage in a putative romance after the reunion, the aspirations of their younger selves contrasted with the drabness of the older and the potential spark ignited after the long-awaited meeting.
Teams of talented kids rotate the roles of the singing children under Ian Townsend’s sterling musical direction and Anna Francolini’s bottled-up PA Enid and Dean Andrews’ happy-go-lucky schmuck of an insurance clerk Tubby make an utterly adorable couple for whom it is impossible not to root for, and they drive the show through its lumpier moments when the narrative doesn’t quite slide as easily as it could between the two timeframes.
Wood’s inimitable sense of humour also shines far brighter in the 60s scenes, the funniest songs and references coming thick and fast (Berni Inns ftw) and almost overwhelming the show, though there are worse ways to go than through a surfeit of Victoria Wood gags! And the charm of the show is ultimately so great that one is easily tempted to forgive its minor missteps and instead embrace its huge warmth.