C P Taylor’s 1977 play And a Nightingale Sang is one of the few he wrote that made it to the West End stage, in a 1979 staging at the Queens Theatre starring Patricia Routledge. Since then it has been reasonably regularly revived and is currently at the Oldham Coliseum in a production co-produced with the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-Under-Lyme.
With a story spanning the whole of the Second World War, but concentrating on the events concerning one family in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, And a Nightingale Sang is a very confusing piece of theatre. It’s not clear whether it is a nostalgic comedy, or a drama and it strikes me a piece where getting the tone right is paramount. This production doesn’t quite achieve this, as much of the script is played for laughs but only with mixed success.
In fairness, there are some genuinely funny, almost farcical, moments, but for every one of these there is an awkward moment where it is unclear whether amusement is appropriate. These inconsistencies can be partly blamed on C P Taylor’s writing which, for such a prolific playwright, is disappointingly dull. The plot, although touching on some issues that certainly would have been controversial in 1940’s Britain, is slight, gentle and hugely predictable.
Following runs at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough and the New Vic in Newcastle-Under-Lyme, both of which are in the round spaces, designer Helen Goddard’s production has been re-staged for Oldham’s traditional proscenium stage where it is crying out for more space. The large and bulky set piece is too far forward on the stage leaving the performers little room for manoeuvre. Whether this is intentional as a symbolic reference to the working class conditions of the Second World War is unclear, but as a result the production often feels awkward and cramped and there is a need for more differentiation between indoor scenes.
The cast are a mixed bunch but genuinely appear to be working hard to overcome the production’s faults and their accents are unanimously spot on! Leading the cast is Laura Norton as Helen, the downtrodden, slightly disabled sister to Anna Doolan’s vain and pretty Joyce. Norton takes while to warm up but as the evening progresses and the character develops her performance grows and her final scenes with Jack Bennett, who excellently plays Helen’s lover Norman, are dignified and poignant.
Joyce’s husband Eric is a strange character whose personality seems to change scene by scene. Actor Michael Imerson compensates well for this and delivers a strong performance, not matched by Doolan’s weaker Joyce. Simeon Truby as George, father to Helen and Joyce, is musically proficient and has a fine voice, but his character is underused. Katherine Dow Blyton and Ged McKenna as mother Peggy and Grandfather Andie are both, despite great energy, far too over the top with performances that would not be out of place in a pantomime.
Despite its many faults, there is much to recommend this production. Wartime music is effectively used and performed live on stage, costumes are exactly of the right period and there is a commendable attention to detail. This leads to an enjoyable evening out but one that begs the question; of all the excellent wartime plays in the repertoire, why choose this one?