For her “play with songs” as she describes it, Victoria Wood has been inspired by an old Granada documentary about the 1929 recording of Nymphs & Shepherds by the Manchester Schoolchildren Choir at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. That Day We Sang recreates that recording, while also leaping forward to 1969 and imagining a romance between Tubby and Enid, two members of that school choir, 40 years down the line and downtrodden by life.
It may seem like a pretty mundane subject, but Wood is an expert at finding the heart in the lives of everyday people. It’s in the scenes set in 1969 that her writing is at its strongest: a world where eateries such as Berni Inn and Wimpy seemed impossibly glamourous and where the plating of Matchmakers demonstrated an innate sense of sophistication; the production’s recreations of late ’60s Manchester have the mainly middle-aged audience chuckling in recognition.
Wood is well served by her cast too. Vincent Franklin is wonderful as the meek and mild Tubby, while Jenna Russell embodies Enid perfectly, the shy spinster trapped in an affair with her boss who yearns for a better life. She really excels in the second half, especially in the showstopping musical number about how her very name is a bar to a healthy sex life (“I’ve never been made to hum like a Scaletrix”), but it’s Lorraine Bruce, who provides the comic foil as Enid’s plain speaking colleague, who comes close to stealing the show.
The scenes set during the lead up to the recording work equally well, if not quite as evocatively. Raif Clarke plays the young Tubby, an exuberant child yet to be bruised and battered by life’s experience, and That Day We Sang is at its most touching when the older Tubby looks upon his young self (there’s even a joyful dance sequence between the two characters). The choir itself, taken from Manchester’s primary schools – and obviously having the time of their life – acquit themselves tremendously.
It’s Wood’s flights of whimsical fancy that really stick in the mind though – the dance number by Berni Inn staff, a grey and dreary Piccadilly Gardens transformed into a song and dance show worthy of Broadway, and a hilarious recreation of the Granada documentary which started it all, with the banality and woodenness of regional TV news perfectly observed.
Of course, for every person who celebrates Wood’s cosy Northern wit, there’ll be another who’ll decry it as twee sentimentality and it’s certainly not difficult to predict the ending of this very Northern love story, but it would be only the most cynical of audience members who could fail to be moved as the curtain falls.