That Day We Sang

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Last Thursday I went to see Victoria Wood’s That Day We Sang at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. I didn’t go with the idea that I would come back with ideas to blog about - the plan was merely to have a very nice time. That main mission was accomplished, but we had the bonus of a question-answer session with the cast after the show which brought up two things that piqued my interest beyond the pleasure of a beautifully-written and beautifully-performed show.

The show, if you’ve not heard of it, is a play with songs based around a real event - the making of a record by a Manchester schools’ choir in 1929. The play is set in 1969, and explores how looking back on their childhood experiences of singing affect the middle-aged adults they protagonists have become. It is steeped in nostalgia - the characters’ reflection on their youth drives the emotional narrative of the plot, while the audience’s recognition of details of everyday life from the 1960s (Berni Inns, Matchmakers, the anticipation of decimalisation) underpins much of the humour.

So, the first thing that came out of the discussion session was the account of a very very elderly lady in the audience who had actually sung on that record of her impressions of the choir mistress Gertrude Riall and conductor Sir Hamilton Harty. The play had depicted the (true) story of how the first two takes of the recording (under Sir Hamilton’s leadership) had not gone well, but the third had been a success after Gertrude’s intervention.

However, the audience-member’s view of the characters involved seemed quite different from the play’s. The play depicted Sir Hamilton as a dictatorial figure who intimidated the children, in contrast to Gertrude’s kindness and encouragement which restored their faith in themselves. Whereas the elderly lady described Gertrude Riall as ‘very strict’, and Sir Hamilton as ‘a bit of a limp lettuce’. In her account, catching sight of the choir mistress made the children step up to the mark, stiffening their resolve when they lacked focus.

Wood’s imagining of the two historical figures in some ways fit more with cultural stereotypes than the eye-witness account. The woman who works with children has a softer, more maternal feel (though the only actual mother in the play is a wonderfully complex character who quite defies stereotype); the male conductor fits the mould of the maestro myth.

And my guess is that, in real life, both musicians operated with elements of both kindness and authoritarianism. And that if the characters got shunted into the ‘wrong’ boxes relative to the former singer’s recollection, that is probably more to do with the distorting effects of stereotype on the cultural concept of conductor than that of women.

The other thing that had me reaching for my note-book was a comment by the assistant director, Liz Stevenson about the choirs involved in the production. Because there are limits to how many hours a week children can work in the theatre (they have to do things like go to school too), they had three separate groups of children to perform as the choir. Liz Stevenson commented on how each choir developed its own, quite distinct, group personality.

Now, we all have a sense that a choir - or any ensemble - has a sense of corporate identity. There is a group dynamic that emerges from the group activity. But you don’t often get this kind of controlled experiment in which all other things are pretty much equal - same people training the choir, same repertoire to be performed, same rehearsal and performance spaces, same size of group, but different singers.

This suggests that, whatever impact things like genre, leadership and process have on the development of an ensemble identity, the actual people within the ensemble and their interactions are also key to the mix. You sometimes hear a discourse of ensemble leadership that evokes a kind of ‘auteur’ aesthetic - the director ‘stamping their personality’ on the music - and I think that Stevenson’s comment is a useful counterbalance to that view.

Of course, in the theatre there is an ethos of bringing the performance out of the cast. However didactic a theatre director may be, there is always that sense that the actor owns the character. And you could see that the cast took a collective delight in how much they’d seen the children develop through the rehearsal and performance process. So it may be that this ethos permits the growth of distinctive group identities more strongly than an ‘auteur’ approach to building a choir.

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