The 1930’s Spanish Civil War hardly sounds like a likely source of material for a musical, but this production sweeps away any such preconceptions. Simply put, composer Howard Goodall and writer Renata Allen have produced a musical that outshines anything the Rice-Lloyd Webber machine has come up with.
Days of Hope is set in Spain in 1939, during the dying moments of the Spanish Civil War. The savagery of battle pauses briefly to allow for the snatched happiness of a wedding meal before the plot resolves itself in a desperate flight from anger and betrayal to freedom. The story begins with a family celebrating the marriage of their daughter, Sofia, to an English volunteer, Stanley, on the eve of their escape to England: a trip from which they have little chance of survival. A pleasing, simple tune, the melodious signature “Days of Hope”s declaration of hope holds an ominous prescience of doom. An even stronger sense that the delirious idyll of the newlyweds may not last comes when Sofia relishes the names of the wondrous new cities of opportunity she expects to find in 30’s Britain: “Leeeds! Man-chester!” she exclaims joyfully!
As the wedding meal unfolds, various visitors join the celebration and bring different perspectives upon their condemnation of Franco, of Mussolini and Hitler for their intervention, and of Britain’s non-intervention. Together the characters rehash the ideals and the failure of the War. Young, naïve Pablo, who is due to marry Sofia’s cousin Teresa, appears as a representative of the laissez-faire Spanish who swallowed Franco’s propaganda, and Carlos’ ex-comrade José (played by an extremely charismatic and energetic Matt Cross), once heroic and now vicious, shows his face to add some objective balance.
Although the dark shadows of death and political strife do loom over the meal, most of the play is dedicated to exploring the bonds of love and camaraderie that hold the family, and the volunteer Republican units, together. While the initial focus is on Aimie Atkinson’s Sofia and Simon Thomas’s endearing Stanley, it’s really the story of Carlos and his wife Maria. David Burt plays the ageing fisherman with real earth grandeur, as a bombastic, jovial and very likeable man who’s not going to let a little thing like a “few fascists” spoil his enjoyment of the feast. Much of the dialogue consists of his sparring with the cynical and witty Maria. Siobhan McCarthy perfectly embodies the elegance and stature of Maria and her strength of character and composition reminds me of the truly great female roles found in Almodovar films.
The story is told with deceptive simplicity, what could have easily steered towards the camp, is successfully kept restrained and remains understated by means of good direction from Russell Labey. This is not a conventional through-composed musical but a play punctuated with hauntingly beautiful songs, whose warmth humanizes the political argument and which have their roots in Spanish folk song and flamenco. A single piano and guitar intensify the sense of intimacy created throughout the production. The characters do not sing the songs to other characters but to the audience directly, and the influence of the Brechtian tradition is further pointed out by the pianist when he lightens the mood by claiming that the piano has been “tuned to the 1939 war spirit in true Brechtian spirit.”
It is not the most subtle or well-argued defense of Republicanism ever posited, but the seven actors make up a fine ensemble, and many of the songs are very moving. Towards the end, Carlos sings of a young 12 year-old Republican, Antonio, who mistakenly believed he “would never die”. Young Sebastian Chichizola sings the chorus as Antonio with angelic clarity but it is only when Carlos took over the sad refrain, “You will never die”, after the boy’s death that the tears welled up. As the lights came up, the audience hastily wiped away their tears before erupting into rapturous applause.
This ultimately, is how Days of Hope works, by going directly for the heart rather than the brain. The play is not very authentically Spanish, or politically shrewd. But it is a good, old-fashioned tear-jerker, and none the worse for that. Wearing its heart on its sleeve, it is beautifully staged and lit, making great use of a small but cozy space, compassionately acted and sends us out humming some very catchy songs while pondering the eternally relevant and complex issues of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy.’