Bush Theatre, London W12
Opened 22 February, 2002

Richard Cameron may partly have been exacting a kind of revenge for his experiences on Great Balls Of Fire, the unsuccessful 1999 West End for which he co-wrote the book, by writing a musical play set firmly within his more accustomed territory of the mining (or ex-mining) communities of south Yorkshire. The Glee Club, the latest presentation in the Bush Theatre's thirtieth anniversary season and Cameron's fifth play to première at the venue, concerns just what the title says: a singing group whose members work in a Don Valley pit.

It is 1962, so Colin, the youngest member of the group (by some twenty years) has naïve dreams of becoming a pop idol. But this is one plot strand among many: stolid Jack is tempted away from his happy marriage by the reappearance of an unrequited childhood sweetheart, Walt haunted by having relinquished his children after being widowed, pugnacious Bant shattered firstly by his wife's desertion and then, during the action of the play, by losing his job for refusing to cover up a pit safety failure. Most keenly of all, the group's accompanist Phil is being hounded by accusations that he has used his post as church organist to molest choirboys.

Cameron has always been good at using small, tight-knit groups of characters to throw light on a wider range of personal and community developments: here, the group's comic double-act play out various dialogues between married couples, pit officials and the like. His principal strength, like Billy Roche (whose recently revived The Cavalcaders this play in some ways resembles), is his ability to give compelling depth to the motions of ordinary people, and in particular to same-sex friendships, portraying feelings with a writer's skill but not compromising their straightforward honesty a single iota. This power culminates in tight-buttoned Phil's admission that, although not in any way a child abuser, he is in fact a non-practising homosexual; at this point, Scobie, the group joker and Phil's most stalwart defender, is consumed with a rage that is part-uncomprehending homophobia, part-personal affront. Shaun Prendergast's Scobie takes the acting laurel in Mike Bradwell's expert production, no mean feat in a cast which also includes prime performances from David Bamber as Phil and the formidable David Schofield as Bant.

What distinguishes this from many of the author's other works is the amount of jocular banter that goes on, particularly in the first act, which softens us up much more effectively for the Cameronian emotions that intensify as the evening progresses. Under Mia Soteriou's musical direction, the cast give accomplished and amusing renditions (sometimes as implicit commentary upon the dramatic action) of numbers ranging from "Funiculi, Funicula" to "All I Have To Do Is Dream". The only uncertain theatrical note is the topping and tailing of the piece with perfunctory memory-play speeches by Colin. Otherwise, this impressive piece is Cameron's most striking work since his astonishing arrival in 1990 with Can't Stand Up For Falling Down, and probably the finest of his professional career to date.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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