HAMs (Hagbourne Drama Group) – “Our Day Out” by Willy Russell
Drawing on his experiences of school trips, both as a teacher and a child, Willy Russell “Our day out” started life as a television play originally commissioned and broadcast by the BBC in 1977 and was developed into a musical for the stage in 1983. Both sad, humorous and true to life it tells the story of a group of underprivileged schoolchildren (the “progress” class) who are taken on a day’s outing by their teachers. The children boisterously rampage through a roadside café, a zoo, a castle and a beach. It is a poignant look at the joys and agonies of growing up – the bullies, the teenage crushes etc -, as well as a sharp pointer to the depressing present and future for them. It is a story that is depressingly as relevant today as it was in 1977 with themes of social deprivation, prejudice and lack of education and opportunity.
Having a large cast of mainly kids must have been challenging to rehearse, but I have to say they were brilliant – loads of energy and confidence, belting out the songs and were very focussed throughout. The adults had their work cut out to keep up with them! The actors made good use of the space and the pace was generally excellent throughout with the action moved seamlessly from one scene to another. If I was to nit pick, there were a couple of moments that I would have liked to have seen paced slightly differently to punch out the themes of the play – the cliff top scene where Briggs is trying to coax Carol away from the edge, for example – just a few moments of silence would, I feel, have really highlighted Briggs’ fear and anxiety and the moment of truth that hits him at that time, which leads to his change of attitude. The songs were well executed and supported by excellent live musicians, which is so much better than backing tracks. There were some great songs – ranging from the rousing chorus numbers by the kids excited by elements of the trip, to the poignant “I’m in love with, Sir” and “Why can’t it always be this way” and my favourite “Get off my bus” delivered brilliantly with gusto by Martin Redhead as the grumpy bus driver with a soft centre (I’m sure he drove my school bus when I was a kid!).
The HAMs production was staged partially in the round – a set of stage blocks in the centre of the village hall arranged in an elongated rectangle became the school bus, a fair ground waltza and the castle, while the stage at the far end worked well as the head’s office, sweet shop and clifftop. This worked simply and effectively with chairs being moved on and off the stage blocks to form the seating for the bus and the waltza fairground ride. All areas were well lit with some clever lighting design – which given that this is a relatively small village hall with limited resources, it is worthy of special mention. Costumes were all appropriate – school uniforms personalised with an edge of scruffiness for the boys and ‘let’s see how short a skirt I can get away with’ from some of the older girls!
The whole cast worked hard but there were a few stand out performances. I was particularly impressed by Kayleigh Neal’s sassy performance as a Linda, troubled teenager with attitude and a crush on ‘Sir’ – her facial expressions and mannerisms were bang on throughout and I didn’t see her slip out of character once. Meabh Foster gave a very strong and sensitive performance as Carol, a girl who doesn’t want to go home to her abusive home environment and her song at the end was heartbreaking. Doug Amos was perfect as the stern, disciplinarian, Mr Briggs, who during the course of the play begins to realise that these kids were more than just trouble-makers. Also really enjoyed the cameo performances of Andy Stocks as the job’s worth Lollipop man and Iain Duff’s outraged zoo keeper when the kids try to smuggle out the animals.
All in all, I thought that HAMs nailed this show – it was well executed and the audience were totally emotionally engaged as they went on the journey with the kids – laughing at the antics and the teasing, and shedding the odd tear on the realisation that the memories made on this school trip is likely to be one of the few happy memories that many of them will have of their childhood – there were definitely a few soggy hankies at the end (mine included!). Well done director, Mary Hands and her team at HAMs, it will be one that I will remember for a long time and I’m sure that all the kids involved will have some very happy memories!
Karen Carey (Chair of the Oxfordshire Drama Network)