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Life in Manchester has changed enormously in recent times. It’s almost unrecognisable from the same city 40 years ago. However it’s Manchester in 1969 that provides the setting for Victoria Wood’s That Day We Sang, in which the main characters reminisce about their lives 40 years earlier.

First staged as part of Manchester International Festival in 2011, it’s since been tweaked and revised for a festive run at the Royal Exchange.

The main characters, Tubby and Enid, are former members of the Manchester School Children’s Choir, whose recording of Nymphs And Shepherds became an unlikely smash hit in 1929. As the sixties draw to a close, though, they’re middle-aged and stuck in decidedly humdrum jobs. When the choir is reunited for a Granada TV documentary, the pair resume their childhood friendship, and consider just how much their lives have changed in the meantime.

Tubby is played by Dean Andrews, the Rotherham-born actor familiar to viewers of Last Tango In Halifax, Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes. Songs are scattered throughout the piece, but it’s not exactly a musical. Andrews says: “I would describe it as a play with music. I feel as though the musical numbers are an extension of the dialogue, really – although there is one specific tip of the hat to Busby Berkeley in there.”

The role gives Andrews the chance to show off his singing skills. This may come as a surprise to those more used to seeing him as surly DS Ray “Raymundo” Carling, but it was singing that got Andrews into the business in the first place. “I performed in am-dram with my mum when I was about nine, doing the local theatre shows – Oklahoma, Carousel and all that kind of stuff. Then I started out singing in the working men’s clubs and graduated through cruise liners, casinos – everywhere that required singers,
I ended up going at some point. So singing was my life before acting was my life. I’m not the greatest of singers, but I can certainly hold a tune.”

The unexpected change of career came about in 2001, when Ken Loach held auditions for his TV drama The Navigators.

“It was a total accident, really. Ken Loach came to Sheffield looking to cast ordinary people, as he always does. He got in touch with the local entertainment agencies and I was one of hundreds of club acts that went and had a meeting with him. I got lucky enough to end up with one of the lead roles. Then an agent saw me, rang me and took me on.”

More roles followed quickly, and Andrews took to acting with aplomb. “I’ve always loved singing but I earned a living at it and that’s about it, whereas with acting I felt very close to it quite quickly. I suppose when I started off as a 20 year old, I wanted to be a pop star. Now my ambition is to be in musicals, really.”

So as Andrews’ first professional theatre role, Tubby is pretty much a perfect fit. And as characters go, he’s very likeable.

“He’s lived with his mum all his life. He’s never had a girlfriend as such. All the girls in the office love him – ‘Oh, why hasn’t Tubby got a girlfriend?’ – not that they would want him as their boyfriend! But he’s such a nice chap. He’s always got a smile on his face and he’s so self-deprecating.”

Confirmed fans of Wood will find plenty to enjoy here – the attention to detail, the insight into relationships, the bittersweet humour.

“It’s very well written as always, well-observed characters and a beautifully told story. It’s got her stamp all over it, really.”

And although it’s not obviously festive, it works perfectly as a Christmas-time show because it’s so deeply human and heart-warming. “It’s just a great love story, I think. It plots the journey along the way, the ups and downs. But, fingers crossed, in the end he gets the girl.”

That Day We Sang, until 18 January 2014, Royal Exchange, Manchester

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That Day We Sang

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