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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. And we take the opportunity to explore other vintage productions preserved online. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

Our Day Out
BBC Play Of The Week 1977 and YouTube   Autumn 2021

A survivor of the days when the BBC routinely featured first-class one-off dramas, this 1977 Play Of The Week is an early work by Willy Russell (Shirley Valentine, Blood Brothers, etc.)

It features what we have come to recognise as Russell's signature blend of idealism, sentimentality and gritty realism, and is of particular interest because Russell recently adapted this script for a new stage musical which may find its way to London.

The Day Out is a coach trip organised by a sympathetic teacher (Jean Heywood) for an inner-city school's 'special' students the mentally challenged, functionally illiterate and incorrigibles just being warehoused with little pretence of education until it is legal to set them free.

The trip has an ostensible educational purpose, but she openly admits she just wants to give the kids a little bit of fun. The spectre of schoolkids actually being happy is enough to horrify a more doctrinaire teacher (Alun Armstrong), who insists on coming along to maintain order.

You can probably guess at the general outline of what's going to happen. The youngsters are going to run a little wild, but a few of them will be affected by the discovery of a world outside their limited horizons. There will be comedy and pathos, and that stern teacher might even loosen up a bit.

But it is in the specifics that Willy Russell offers little surprises and shocks of recognition. A stop at a roadside cafe leads to some wild shoplifting that is actually scary, but there is something sweetly innocent about the way a visit to a petting zoo leads some to try to take home a rabbit or chicken.

Playing soldiers in a castle ruin seems like exactly the right response for youngsters to have, and it is intentionally almost painful to witness their awed response to the seaside.

But Russell is no Pollyanna. The mean teacher may soften a bit for a while, but coming back to the school at the end of the day reminds him of who he really is.

And the most startling and affecting moment comes when the kindly teacher admits to herself that she has really given up on these kids and that one justification for this day out is that there wouldn't be much point to a day in the classroom.

As directed by Pedr James, the young actors all come across as absolutely believable and the adult actors add complex and deepening colours to their characterisations.

As with Russell's more familiar plays, there is a lot more to Our Day Out than you expect at the start.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Our Day Out - BBC 1977 - September 2021