Victoria Wood’s “play with music” returns after its run at Manchester International Festival – we find out why Wood was so happy to reprise her much-loved performance.
“It is a play with songs and dancing and insurance men. It’s a love story played against a background of The Wimpy, The Golden Egg, Piccadilly Gardens … it’s a very Mancunian story.” This is how comedian, actress and writer Victoria Wood describes her “play with music,” That Day We Sang. The play is a bighearted, nostalgic love story set in Manchester: it’s 1969 and insurance clerk Tubby (played by Dean Andrews) meets secretary Enid (Anna Francolini) forty years after they first sang together in the Manchester School Children’s Choir. Granada Television are recording a documentary to celebrate the original event at the Free Trade Hall – Tubby and Enid find themselves back on stage, each somewhat lost in middle age. The play, which revisits Enid and Tubby as children in 1929, thinks about who its two main characters were, and who they might still become.
One of the must-see shows of the 2011 Manchester International Festival, its original cast received standing ovations after performances at the Opera House. The show has now been reinvented and re-orchestrated for the Royal Exchange, with this new version directed by the venue’s artistic director, Sarah Frankcom (who was also responsible for Maxine Peake’s recent mesmerizing performance in the Masque of Anarchy). Frankcom remembers a lunch spent with MIF director Alex Poots, mildly fretting about the difficulty of finding a play suitable for this year’s festive season. “He just said, ‘Have you thought of That Day We Sang? I think you and Victoria should talk because I think she’d be really up for it,’” Frankcom remembers. “I found myself exchanging emails over that weekend with Victoria Wood, one of my biggest heroes – as she is for a lot of people.” Frankcom had seen Wood’s MIF version and remembered being “thrilled” by it: “There’s something very powerful about being in Manchester when you tell Manchester stories – and that’s what was very canny about it. I think there’s more of Manchester who are up for hearing the story.” And, luckily for those Mancunions who do, Wood was more than happy to come on board.
It’s a love story set against a background of The Wimpy, The Golden Egg & Piccadilly Gardens
Frankcom gave us her version of why Wood loved the idea so much: “When it was made for the Festival, she’d only just written it and she was also directing it, so I think she was excited by the proposition of seeing it realized by someone else – and having the experience of just watching it in another theatre.” Wood was very hands-on when the show was first mounted at the Opera House and was often spotted sitting in various seats during public performances, eager to finesse the show. Frankcom has been delighted by Wood’s approach to the new production: “She’s been a brilliant, generous collaborator,” always “on the end of a phone” if Frankcom needed her to be. Wood participated in design meetings and had an overview on castings, but was equally happy to hand over power to the director and her team. “Her attitude has been very much ‘No, you get on with it,’” Frankcom tells us.
Wood’s concern was principally for the people who didn’t get to see That Day We Sang the first time around. So, how will the Royal Exchange’s style be different to the original? “Any production is filtered through the director’s imagination, of course,” Frankcom admits. But she also points out the enlivening differences that a new setting can lend. “One reason I was really excited about doing it here is because there’s something about performing this story in the round that gives the storytelling more momentum, making the relationship between 1929 and 1969 fluid and theatrically exciting.” According to Frankcom, this complements the way that, for some, the festive season can be a time for reflection: “It’s especially perfect for us at Christmas – there’s something about the notion of revisiting your younger self and learning from that person in order to change your present circumstances that can really pull you in.”
The show’s music is equally engaging as it harnesses the power of collective singing. Musical productions are something of a new direction for Exchange. “There’s not been much of a history here of doing much with music,” Frankcom says. “For me, musical theatre, even though this really is a play with songs, is a whole new world” – so much so that, though the director had previously worked with actress Anna Francolini for A View From The Bridge, Frankcom had “no idea at the time that she was one of our most respected musical theatre actresses!” The process of bringing this play to the Exchange has also influenced how, as artistic director, Frankcom thinks about the space. In rehearsals, she discovered that “plays that rely on singing or song feel like they’ve got a real potency in our space. That’s very exciting in terms of opening up the repertoire a little bit. The intimacy really lends itself to musical writing because you can hear the lyrics perfectly.” So, might the acclaimed director of such punchy dramas as Punk Rock be turning her talents to musicals in the future? “I don’t know about that,” Frankcom laughs, “but I certainly don’t think it’ll be the last thing like this I do.” That Day We Sang is a peculiarly Mancunian tale of love and a life viewed in the round – it seems appropriate that the production is also giving audiences the chance for a second look.