Director Phil Clark was in the original Newcastle cast of CP Taylor’s play And A Nightingale Sang in the 1970s. His staging of it as the opening production in Jill Freud’s annual summer theatre season in Suffolk treats it with compassion as well as affection. Part social documentary and mainly comedy, the script has an underlying seriousness which gives it its dramatic strength.

Devout Catholic matriach Peggy thinks that she holds her family together, but it is her lame daughter Helen who is the real lynchpin and who mst engages us with the action. Maurice Rubens’ setting suggests the congestion of a small house with too many occupants as the Second World War thunders past and ever more bombs drop from the Heinkel-infected skies. While her sister Joyce dithers over soldier Eric’s proposal, Helen takes what Norman can offer and accepts that the consequences may not be what she desires.

This is a play about larger-than-life characters, notably Peggy’s father, parcelled out between his daughters like a working-class King Lear. Jeffrey Perry, burdened with livestock as well as suitcases, dodders effectively; you can see why Kate Russell-Smith’s harassed Peggy finds him just a bit of a trial. Michael Shaw is George, Peggy’s husband, the former coalman who takes up communism as his new post-war religion.

If Joyce (Helen Armes) is something of a worry to her frustrated suitor Eric (Iain Ridley), Charles Davies as Norman presents a different sort of dilemma to Helen. Hayley Doherty gives an outstanding performance in the part, showing us the pain (though that is never of the self-pitying variety) of the girl who knows that she’s always going to have to settle for something which never quite measures up to her own high value.

Sound and lighting both evoke the era; the air-raid shelter scene in the middle of a particularly ferocious aerial bombardment is particularly effective. Miri Birch’s costumes look authentic – thick stockings and clumpy shoes for the women; short haircuts for the men. It adds up to an excellent start for the 2011 season.