Victoria Wood’s unashamedly cosy and warm love letter to her home city was one of the highlights of the Manchester International Festival in 2011. Now the production has been tweaked and to some extent reimagined as an alternative to the traditional panto at the Royal Exchange.
It’s a move that makes sense – in the grandiose setting of the city’s Opera House two and a half years ago, the ‘play with songs’ often felt a bit dwarfed by its surroundings. It feels altogether better suited to the more intimate space of the Royal Exchange.
Inspired by an old Granada TV documentary about the about the 1929 recording of Nymphs & Shepherds by the Manchester Schoolchildren Choir at the city’s iconic Free Trade Hall, Wood recreates the recording, as well as jumping forward in time to imagine an unlikely blossoming romance between two former members of the choir, Tubby and Enid.
With a new cast and a new director in Sarah Franckom, this version of That Day We Sang feels like a brand new production. Wood’s usual wit and warmth remain, but a few subtle rejigs have given the play a new lease of life.
It’s the scenes set in late ’60s Manchester that are strongest. This world of Berni Inns, Wimpy restaurants and Matchmaker chocolates, is conjured by Wood’s affectionate eye. She understands the potency of detail, the frisson of recognition and memory. James Cotterill’s design enhances this effect, picking out the period details, as does Johanna Town’s lighting.
The show is anchored emotionally by Dean Andrews, whose performance is something of a revelation as Tubby, the kind, unassuming insurance salesman – a million miles away from some of the aggressive characters he tends to play on TV – while Anna Francolini (reunited with Franckom after a stunning turn in A View From The Bridge in 2011) is equally strong as the bruised, reserved and repressed Enid.
The supporting cast are on good form too with Sally Bankes displaying brilliant comic timing in both of her dual roles, and the excellent Kelly Price making the most of the unshowy yet vital role of the choir mistress. William Haresceugh (alternating his role with two other young actors throughout the run) gives a lovely, naturalistic performance as the young Tubby.
The songs stand up too; obviously this isn’t Sondheim, but a number set in a Berni Inn proves hard to resist and Enid’s astonishing torch ballad to sexual frustration – featuring so many one-liners it’s impossible to keep track – is another highlight. Andrews and Francolini may not have the strongest singing voices, but this feels in keeping with the tone of the material.
You don’t have to be a genius to see where Tubby and Enid’s hesitant romance is going, but again that’s sort of besides the point. The show, as a whole, is a gloriously warm-hearted piece of theatre and as such feels particularly well suited to this time of year.