Sunday 13th October 2013, matinée
Having made our first ever trip to Ye Olde Rose and Crown theatre pub to get a taste of Howard Goodall’s work in the revue Love and War, it was a pleasure to revisit this venue for a staged production of his rarely performed musical, Days of Hope, written with Renata Allen. Set at the end of the Spanish Civil war, the story revolves around a family caught up in the aftermath, and the musical explores themes of conflict and peace, and in Goodall’s words, asks questions about why democracy failed in Spain in 1939.
Sofia has married an English volunteer who fought with her father, and they plan to escape with her parents back to England the next day in her father’s fishing boat. They enjoy a meagre wedding feast (the result of the privations of war) and over the course of the evening it emerges that their plan is going to be more problematic than they thought. Visited by former comrades and potential enemies, we hear different perspectives of the war and the action foreshadows the growing conflict and horrors to come.
The book by Renata Allen creates rounded characters whom we care about, and weaves a skilful plot which brings in the tension and conflict that might have visited a small village torn apart by three years of civil war. The father, Carlos, has fought for the republicans, and now finds himself in conflict both with the rebels who want to fight on, and those who didn’t fight, whom he views with suspicion. Pablo, who is to be married to Carlos’ beloved niece Teresa, brings a gift of a loaf of bread, a rare luxury in times of scarcity. But his generosity is soon turned sour by accusations that he has had favourable treatment for supporting the fascists. As the fascist threat becomes apparent, Carlos has to decide whether to give up his place on the boat for his niece, and more importantly, can he persuade his wife Maria to let him?
Director Tim McArthur has made a virtue of the Rose and Crown’s small space by setting the action in the round with just a table and chairs as a set, and he creates a naturalistic and warm atmosphere of family tensions and merriment, including real food, plenty of wine (not real we assume), and some nice comedic moments and well as drama. This works well to an extent, but there are times when the naturalistic setting seems to stop the music from taking us out of the action. This is problematic because they are not really meant to move the action forward, but are more like vignettes of emotion and reflection, carrying much of the meaning of the play, and in some cases it jars because the setting is so realistic. The choreography that goes with some of the songs seemed superfluous too – we longed for some stillness so that we could concentrate on the singing.
Having said that, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of the music, which is ultimately the medium which brings home the personal aspects of the war and at times is almost unbearably poignant. The opening number, ‘Days of Hope’, is sung by the young couple, looking forward to their new life – reprieved at the end it takes on a new and richer meaning as Carlos and Maria sing to each other in a situation in which there would appear to be no hope. ‘Market Day’ which describes the massacre at Guernica is brilliantly constructed, moving from lighthearted humour to horror. ‘In old Madrid’, sung a capella by the men is haunting and beautiful, as is the duet between the young women ‘Lorca’, which simply affirms that something of Lorca’s spirit surely still lives on in the natural beauty around them. Towards the end, Carlos sings the story of a young boy (‘Antonio’) who joined the fight with the refrain ‘Die, I will never die’. It is these moments of pure emotion that work best.
As we have come to expect from All Star productions and Aaron Clingham’s musical direction, the cast were strong, with some powerful acting and musical performances: Christopher Dingli as Carlos brought visceral energy to the role, with humour and passion in equal measures; Jo Wickham, although perhaps a bit youthful for the careworn matriarch, had a rich singing voice and combined a wonderful sense of bossiness with genuine warmth. Lydia Marcazzo brings sweetness to the character of Teresa, who has her innocence taken away all too quickly, and Alexander Barria as Pablo, the man who is slowly realising that there is no such thing as true neutrality, has a stillness and intensity (not to mention a beautiful voice) which draws the audience in.
We are not sure that ‘Days of Hope’ really answers those questions about democracy, but it does remind us about a conflict that is often forgotten, overshadowed by the second world war. Ultimately, it doesn’t quite bring that sense of dramatic momentum, with music and action coming together to tell the story. But it is a tribute to both Goodall’s music and Renata Allen’s book that this piece is still engaging and moving, and more than deserving of its all too brief revival here.