Review: That day we sang

Singing Victoria Wood's praises


On this evidence it is little wonder that Victoria Wood is seen by many as national treasure. She has used simple, no-nonsense ingredients to craft a thing of beauty, crammed with her trademark wit, her genius at parody and her fine eye for detail. Plus a great big dollop of nostalgia.

If this does not leave you feeling all warm and lovely, then nothing will. Wood, as writer and director, recreates the moment in 1929 when 200 scruffy schoolchildren - the Manchester Children's Choir - made an iconic recording of Nymphs and Shepherds, by 17th-century composer Henry Purcell.

They were forced to ditch their Lancashire accents of course, and coached to "sing posh" as they performed with the world-famous Halle Orchestra - and found that they had become an overnight gramophone sensation.

Forty years on Granada TV tried to round up the original choir members, and managed just four. Woods' uses Granada's documentary - she beautifully parodies the programme with a grinning, nodding reporter in a shocking pink dress - as the starting point for a fictional account of the now middle-aged choir members' memories of their time in the limelight, and of what has happened to them since.

Tubby Baker (brilliantly played as a boy by 11-year-old Raif Clarke) was a cheeky urchin in shorts who loved to sing. Now, in 1969, he is an overweight insurance salesman (played by Vincent Franklin) who has yet to find love.

Enid (Jenna Russell) leads a humdrum, humourless life, but Frank and Dorothy have clearly made something of themselves. They have got a colour television and invite the others to watch it, with the promise of sophisticated nibbles to follow.

There is wealth of wonderful Wood humour here, reflecting on an era when yoghurt was a culinary adventure and a box of Matchmakers was a treat.

The "play with songs" - local children perform as the original choir - is held together by Tubby's tale, his battle with a joyless mother, how he had to run breathless to the Free Trade Hall on that momentous day, and how hearing the recording for the first time in four decades brings tears to his eyes.

The action flits back and forth across the years and the parallel storylines, as love blossoms uncertainly, and the choir faces a tyrannical conductor who will accept no mistakes.

Among the highlights is the Berni Inn scene where the pretensions of Frank and Dorothy are mercilessly punctured as they tuck into their black forest gateau.

Wood's lyrics for the frustrated Enid's lament are hilarious, pushing at genteel naughtiness but never quite tipping into smut.

Fine comedy performances all round, but a certificate of distinction for little Raif Clarke for singing, acting and stealing the show.

Wood is not known for hogging the spotlight. She sneaked in to take her seat just as the lights dimmed. But the audience spotted her as she made her way back after the interval and went wild with applause. She deserved it.

Manchester Opera House

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