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That Day We Sang (MIF - Manchester)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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In 1929 the Manchester School Children’s Choir backed by the Halle Orchestra recorded "Nymphs and Shepherds" at the Free Trade Hall. Decades later a handful of those involved made a documentary on the event. From what could be mundane material, writer and director Victoria Wood delivers a brilliant comedy of social embarrassment meets a tender love story - with songs thrown in for good measure.

Timid bachelor Tubby (Vincent Franklin) and shy spinster Enid (Jenna Russell) are forced into uncomfortable meetings with socially pretentious Frank (Gerald Horan) and Dorothy (Lorraine Bruce - whose selfless comic support nearly steals the show).

The play moves back to the events preceding the 1929 recording. Wood is as perceptive a social commentator as Mike Leigh but tells far better jokes. As well as the squirm-inducing scenes between the middle-aged couples we have Alison Pargeter’s strict yet sexy (works for me) choir leader ruthlessly eliminating the Manchester accent from her young charges.

The show features several new songs by Wood -the best being, mourning the effect of the name "Enid" upon libido, is sung by Russell with real feeling. The real revelation is Franklin, an actor I associate with aggressive roles, here creating a shy but charming romantic gentleman – and one who can dance.

Wood‘s skill as a writer is well known but she impresses also as director. She has an eye for period detail, makes great comedic use of filmed inserts and, along with Choreographer Samantha Murray, creates a lovely song and dance number in Piccadilly Gardens. The choir is made up of talented pupils from four local schools that benefit from the gentle guidance of Wood and Choir Master Anna Flannagan. Soloist Raif Clarke, who plays the younger Tubby, has an excellent voice but sings authentically like a child, with slight flaws, rather than the polish of, say, Glee. It's that type of detail that brings tears to the eyes.

Wood modestly concludes that the choir will be the lasting legacy of That Day We Sang. For once she is wrong and too humble, as the play itself is a gift for audiences and should not be missed under any circumstances.

- Dave Cunningham


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