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And a Nightingale Sang

C P Taylor
New Vic and Oldham Coliseum Theatre
New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme
(2010)

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Cecil Taylor was a seminal figure in north-east culture, with Alan Plater describing Taylor's play Good as "arguably the definitive piece written about the Holocaust in the English-speaking theatre".

The work is hailed as a classic in some quarters. But that can lead to an author's other material being overlooked. That's probably the case with the wartime musical comedy And A Nightingale Sang. The only time it's been reviewed by the British Theatre Guide was in 2006, nearly 30 years after Taylor had written it for Live Theatre, when the company brought it back to life as A Nightingale Sang in Eldon Square.

I don't know whether that's because no critic has been able to catch the play or because no theatre company has taken on the challenge of producing this reasonably long work which calls for Geordie accents throughout.

So it's left to the New Vic to revive And A Nightingale Sang. Although it's a co-production with Oldham Coliseum Theatre, it retains the usual high-quality acting and presentation that have become associated with the north Staffordshire theatre-in-the-round.

The play is a domestic drama about the working-class Stott family and outlines their individual and collected journeys through life from just before the start of World War II until D-Day.

There are seven characters, all superbly defined by Taylor and brought to life with astonishing realism by an enthusiastic and talented cast.

On her first visit to the New Vic, Laura Norton gives a towering performance as Helen, the elder, crippled daughter who holds the dysfunctional family together whenever they face a crisis.

Helen plays a major role as she's also the narrator, her asides not merely moving the action on but allowing the audience a greater insight into all the characters. Laura Norton earns sympathy for her portrayal as the self-deprecating young woman who remains stoical despite having her heart broken by the first man who ever loved her.

Simeon Truby catches the eye as George, the father who tries to assert his authority as master of the family but prefers to get engrossed in playing the piano or ukulele when awkward situations come to light.

Katherine Dow Blyton is well cast as Peggy, the eccentric, God-fearing mother who always overreacts - "the whole world's collapsed around us" - when she ought to be a steady, reassuring influence on the rest of the family.

Ged McKenna as grandfather Andie gets some of the funniest lines in the play. He's delightful as the animal-lover who early on mourns the death of his whippet and later manages to get hold of a gas mask for his cat. At one point McKenna blows out his cheeks in exasperation at what's going on around him; a lovely touch.

Relatively inexperienced Anna Doolan gives a sensitive performance as Joyce, the indecisive younger sister. She's excellent in the scenes in which she can't make up her mind about her relationship with Eric and she has a lovely singing voice. But she doesn't quite show enough aggression when she gets into a slanging match with Eric after he's insulted her mother.

Michael Imerson cleverly develops the character of Eric from a troubled youngster who tries to get out of going to war into an aggressive bully whose insecurities get the better of him.

Jack Bennett is commendable as Norman, the spineless, wimpy soldier who tries to please everyone but only succeeds in hurting those close to him.

Sarah Punshon directs confidently and imaginatively. There's real panic in the air-raid shelter when bombs are being dropped and she extracts humour as well as pathos from Taylor's script. She also gets the best out of those on stage who have musical talent while protecting others who don't have the strongest voices.

With good contributions from lighting designer Daniella Beattie, sound designer James Earls-Davis and vocal coach Sally Hague, And A Nightingale Sang is an opportunity to see an accurate portrayal of social history in a superb production which is perhaps not brought to the stage often enough.

"And A Nightingale Sang" runs at the New Vic until Saturday, February 20th, then transfers to the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough from February 24th until March 6th and Oldham Coliseum Theatre from March 11th until April 3rd.

Reviewer: Steve Orme