First published in The Times, Thursday November 5 2015
Talk about prescient. This new play with songs revolving around the members of a North Lanarkshire choir opened in the week Oxford University published a study suggesting that community singing can play a powerful role in reducing loneliness and promoting social cohesion.
The list of problems afflicting the characters in The Choir – book by Paul Higgins with music by Ricky Ross of Deacon Blue – is seemingly endless, touching upon mental illness and bereavement, unemployment, marital breakup and class tensions. The play’s message – there’s no heartache so great it can’t be solved by a rousing singsong – may sound facile, but it is communicated with such verve and commitment in Dominic Hill’s production that you end up forgiving the conventional sentimentality of the storytelling.
The show’s premise will be familiar to anyone who has seen Alan Ayckbourn’s A Chorus of Disapproval or the Richard Harris play, Stepping Out, which follows the fortunes of an amateur tap dancing class, though it is far warmer than the former and grittier in tone than the latter. In The Choir, an expatriate Iraqi doctor, Khalid (played by Peter Polycarpou), sets out to fill the lonely hours and elude unquiet ghosts by founding a singing group in a rundown Wishaw community centre. His advertisement attracts the kind of disparate, cross-section of society usually only found in sitcoms or reality television shows, including Anne Kidd’s retired Tory councillor, Ryan Fletcher’s ex-offender and Neshla Caplan’s good-natured recent graduate.
The central conceit is Khalid’s invitation to each of his members to share their signature song, which has the effect of illuminating the characters and their relationships. If certain roles are underdeveloped and the plot follows a well-trodden path, there’s plenty of life in Higgins’s script, with Hill’s command of pace and movement tugging us along for the ride.
It is in the painstakingly staged musical numbers that the production really comes into its own, however, with Ross’s enjoyable, sometimes witty genre pastiches made to soar by David Higham’s musical arrangements and some familiar faces from the Scottish theatre scene revealing themselves as accomplished singers and instrumentalists.
Predictable it may be but this feel-good show is so lovingly staged and performed it isn’t hard to imagine The Choir enjoying a longer life than this initial run.