This perfectly judged staging of And a Nightingale Sang, a joint production by the New Vic in Stoke and Oldham Coliseum, reminds us of the unique talents of C.P. Taylor, inexplicably neglected nearly 30 years after his death. Many of Taylor’s plays were staged at the Live Theatre, Newcastle, like this one, or the Traverse in Edinburgh, and his writing has a truth and a social dimension that remain striking today.
And a Nightingale Sang begins in September 1939, with the working-class Stott family in Newcastle too busy with their own preoccupations to pay much heed at first to Hitler. Father George is banging out popular tunes on the piano (which he does to great effect throughout the evening), mother Peggy, an obsessively devout Catholic, agonises over Father Monaghan’s health, granddad Andie frantically seeks for mourners for his whippet’s funeral, pretty young sister Joyce can’t make up her mind whether she fancies a young man or not, and elder sister Helen, limping with a minor disability and living through other people, tries to help everyone and keeps the audience informed.
The play then consists of Helen’s reminiscences realised in a series of snapshots of the Stotts’ life through to VE Day, with her and Joyce’s on-off relations with a pair of soldiers foregrounded. There are glorious, beautifully-orchestrated comic scenes, each family member pursuing his/her own conversational agenda, and a touching exploration of the uncertainties of love on the Home Front. And the songs punctuate all the action, somehow without compromising the naturalistic feel, the title song as evocative as ever, “I’m Going to Get Lit Up when the Lights go on in London” a suitably raucous finale.
Sarah Punshon’s production never strains for effect and draws convincing and entertaining performances all round. Katherine Dow Blyton’s saintly Peggy, pursed up disapproval alternating with energetic kindliness, and Simeon Truby’s George, ironic scepticism replaced by a sense of mission as ARP warden and Communist organiser, are both outstanding. Laura Norton, a movingly unsentimental Helen, confides with the audience with unfailing naturalness, Ged McKenna plays the wilful Andie with perfect comic timing, and Anna Doolan is charmingly (and irritatingly) indecisive and self-obsessed as Joyce. As the soldiers, Jack Bennett and Michael Imerson are well contrasted and as believable as the rest of the cast.
As with the production in general, there is nothing showy about the designs, but Helen Goddard, with the aid of Daniella Beattie’s lighting, effectively summons up the Stotts’ kitchen, Eldon Square, the air-raid shelter, the dance hall, and so forth. Malcolm Newton’s music direction, assisted by Simeon Truby on piano and ukulele and whole-hearted singing from all concerned, is an essential feature of the production’s success.
The first half may well be a touch too long, but this is not a production at which I am disposed to cavil. To re-encounter C.P. Taylor’s humane vision in a production of such integrity is an uplifting experience.
- Ron Simpson