There’s so much music theatre around today that any experienced theatregoer soon learns the ground-rules; how good musicals use the songs to deepen character and push the story forward, while bad musicals simply graft them on to brighten up an uninspiring script.
With the possible exception of David Greig’s thoughtful 2013 play The Events, though, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a piece of music theatre where the music so embodies the whole meaning and forward impulse of the show, as it does in Ricky Ross and Paul Higgins’s The Choir, which had its world premiere at the Citizens’ this weekend; because here, the tensions and dilemmas faced by the characters are so intense that language often fails them, and only song can break the silence.
Set in a community centre hall in Wishaw – and co-produced by the powerful UK-wide Ambassadors Theatre Group – The Choir describes the efforts of an Iraqi-born local surgeon called Khalid to start up a community choir. His call for singers attracts a strikingly mixed bunch, from ill-matched middle-class couple Charlotte and Darren, through soon-to-be-widowed Eileen, posh Persephone, and unemployed young graduate Velia and her best friend Bethany, to romantic hero Donny – who has secrets of his own – and middle-aged Tory couple Jean and George.
Khalid’s idea is to invite each choir member to choose a favourite song that can be worked up into a choral number; but when a row breaks out over Donny’s friend Scott and his anti-zero-hours political rap, all the faultlines within the group are cruelly exposed, from Darren and Charlotte’s failing relationship to bursts of pure class hatred, and the faultlines within Khalid himself, a man fleeing the trauma of his own past.
Ricky Ross’s songs range from the instantly memorable to the slightly strained, as they strive to carry the weight the show places on them – although they shape up into a terrific final medley, led by Jean’s romantic Orchard Street and Scott’s Zero Hours song.
And athough the script and acting, too, strike an occasional bum note, particularly in an unconvincing romance between Khalid and discontented Charlotte, there are terrific leading performances from Ryan Fletcher as Donny – with Nesha Caplan as the lovely Velia – and from a powerful Peter Polycarpou as Khalid, the man who struggles to cope with the tensions he has exposed in a supposedly peaceful place, but who finally learns a few lessons himself, about the healing power of music to help people live with their differences, hear each other’s voices, and begin to create something new.
Until 14 November