Writer: Victoria Wood
Director: Sarah Frankcom
Reviewer: Matthew Nichols
Having first encountered Victoria Wood’s nostalgic comedy drama two years ago at the Manchester International Festival. On a baking hot afternoon, and with an acid hangover (me, not the afternoon), it was the equivalent of collapsing in front of high quality Sunday night TV. Two years on, with some tweaking, and a bold reimagining for the Royal Exchange space, it’s the perfect feelgood festive show for all the family. Not a snowflake or a strand of tinsel in sight, this one wins through on charm, warmth, songs and jokes about the Berni Inn and Black Forest Gateau.
At the fag-end of the 1960s, Tubby Baker (Dean Andrews) is asked to film a documentary for Granada TV about the 40th anniversary of the recording of the legendary Nymphs And Shepherds song. On that day in 1929, Tubby, along with hordes of other Manchester School Children’s Choir attendees had taken the tram to the Free Trade Hall to capture what would become one of the best-selling recordings in history. Stirred by memories of that day he sang, and a reunion with fellow chorister Enid (Anna Francolini), he starts to reappraise his life, and looks to turn middle-aged despair into Mancunian triumph.
My word, this is a treat. Wood’s writing is as sharp as ever, and her refusal to patronise her characters is utterly delightful. Instead we get great gags, wonderful songs, and a sense of a gifted talent shining a light on two overlooked eras. This is, in essence, a memory play, and the dual narratives sit snugly together. Rarely given the credit for how playful she can be with form and structure, Wood’s writing is given room to breathe in Sarah Frankcom’s characteristically clean, witty production. Johanna Town’s lighting recalls the horror of Mancunian eateries and Piccadilly Gardens in 1969, while James Cotterill’s designs don’t cut any corners on period detailing.
The play’s in better shape than it was two years ago, and this is thanks to the children’s choir, and the performers. Jeff Borradaile’s work with the young voices is exemplary; they sing beautifully, and still sound (and look and act) like ordinary Mancunian kids. There’s not a hint of stage-school preening on display, and William Haresceugh (alternating in the rôle of Jimmy) is a revelation. There’s not a hint of self-awareness and showiness, and he surely has a bright future ahead.
The adults are a treat as well. Dean Andrews is all “aw, shucks” geniality, while Anna Francolini (so utterly brilliant in A View From The Bridge, and Caroline Or Change) pinpoints a particular kind of ordinary northern dowdiness, with an inner spirit. A flexible, multi-roling supporting cast includes a perky Faye Brookes, a wonderfully warm Kelly Price (as the children’s choir mistress) and Craige Els as a bone-dry chaperone. The standout is Sally Bankes (in two rôles), who, to the howls of delight from the audience, steals every scene she is in with immaculate comic timing and an expert handling of Wood’s jokes.
What’s not to like? With the increasing breadth of the Royal Exchange at the moment; new directors, new co-productions, and new faces on the stage. You can go to a panto or a monolithic musical any time you like, but this is a truly rare and specific treat for kids of absolutely all ages…up to about 90. Put it this way: in over two decades of seeing productions at the Royal Exchange, One has never heard an audience respond with cheers and applause in the way they did with this life-affirming show. Magic.