That Day We Sang, Manchester International Festival: Opera House


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The Independent Culture

At times, the centrepiece of a Manchester International Festival devoted to original works felt very familiar. Close your eyes and you're hearing Victoria Wood singing at her upright piano when her doleful heroine, Enid Sutcliffe, finally lets herself go. "You won't have a bunch of sex tricks, you won't hum like a Scalextrix, when Enid is your name...."

Wood mines the humour she finds in the northern class system so well that, for a time, the laughs get in the way of the story. An excellent story it is, too – of how the modest members of the Manchester School Children's Choir travelled to the Free Trade Hall in 1929 to record the version of Henry Purcell's Nymphs and Shepherds that remained a radio classic for decades. A Granada TV documentary of the recording, filmed 40 years on, draws together Tubby Baker, a frayed insurance agent, and Enid Sutcliffe, an unfulfilled secretary, for whom life held simple promise back then.

There's no room for pathos as the indomitable, exquisitely observed Brierleys, whom our couple meet on the documentary set, dominate them and us. "Plating up the Matchmakers" is the height of their home entertainment and dining at the Berni Inn a way "to demonstrate the life you're missing." The waiters admit of the Black Forest gateaux that "it's hard to brag; it's cake in drag." Food is a big part of Wood's class divide.

Finally, we get to the story, which is telling us that no one is ordinary. A complex undertaking at times, Wood juggles jokes, the love story, a shift back and forth between 1969 and 1929, archive scenes on a screen centre stage – that she just about succeeds is a feat of some dexterity. Wood's choir of local children are not exactly West End trebles. Good. Neither were they in 1929. Tubby's 11-year-old 1929 alter ego, Raif Clarke, is a show stealer.

Curiously, Enid's is not the story best told. Wood's working-class women of the past few years have been some of her finest creations but while Tubby connects to the musical past, Enid doesn't. That's just how it always was, though, for Nancy Parker-Brown, now 96, who sang in the choir and is sitting in the stalls. "We never thought much of the choir afterwards," she observed. But she was smiling and swaying by the end – and that was the point.

To 17 July (0870 401 9000)