Ruth Jones makes a welcome return to the stage in actor/writer William Gaminara’s The Nightingales, currently premiering at Theatre Royal Bath. A comedy about a small, local acapella group with a definite soap-opera feel, it promises to have wide appeal when it tours the UK and arrives in the West End. With almost all the action set in a village hall, designed by Jonathan Fensom, it quickly draws you into the small, frustrated lives of each player.
Directed by Christopher Luscombe, Jones plays Maggie, a larger than life Welsh woman recently moved to the area, who ingratiates herself with the group of five, led by choir master Steven (Steven Pacey), by praising their singing and handing around sweets. Popping in during every rehearsal and interrupting the flow with her incessant talking, it’s by encouraging them to enter a TV talent competition that she makes herself indispensable.
While the others are happy to enter the contest simply for the crack, dissatisfied beauty Connie (Sarah Earnshaw) takes it all incredibly seriously, convinced that this might be her route to fame and fortune, having sacrificed her modelling career for a humdrum existence of home-making and child-rearing with the lacklustre Ben (Philip McGinley), whose only passions in life appear to be Oasis songs and football. Earnshaw and McGinley are a fine double-act, not least during their interview with the production team, showcasing Gaminara’s talent for sharp dialogue.
Meanwhile, having always stood on the sidelines, the bumbling Maggie gains the group’s sympathy when she reveals that she’s been diagnosed with breast cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy, prompting them to invite her to join the group despite unanimously agreeing that her singing isn’t really up to scratch. Connie is livid about the new addition, claiming that Maggie will undoubtedly ruin their chances of success. Rippled with humour, back-biting and betrayal, Gaminara’s study of small-town life is nothing if not accurate.
Stephen’s young, glamorous wife Diane (Mary Stockley) who initially appears kind and generous, is the main advocate of encouraging Maggie to draw upon the therapeutic qualities of singing and belonging to a community and, having had a twin sister who suffered the same diagnosis, is appalled when Stephen voices his suspicion that Maggie isn’t being truthful. No-one has seen the young son she is always talking about and he very much doubts that she would have been lifting her arms to change a light-bulb if she’d really had the gruelling surgical procedure she claims to be recovering from.
But who would lie about having cancer? The very idea is unthinkable and Diane urges her husband, who puts his astuteness down to his years as a head teacher, to keep his dastardly comments to himself, even giving Maggie financial handouts. Yet Diane is far from the upstanding citizen she purports to be, taking part in sex sessions with black teacher Bruno (Stefan Adegbola) on the village hall table after rehearsals. The curve-ball is that she desperately wants to become a mother and has persuaded Stephen (who already has children from another marriage) to allow her to seek the help of a sperm donor, little does the infatuated Bruno realise.
Far from being a musical, the singing is something of an aside to proceedings, not least when Maggie’s audition disaster prompts the group, now called ‘The Nightingales’, to turn on the newcomer – justly or unjustly is for you to discover. The many questions posed – is Stephen wrong about Maggie? Does he know about his wife’s affair with Bruno? Is Diane only sleeping with Bruno in order to become pregnant? – make for a compellingly relatable comedy that keeps the audience chuckling and guessing. Jones leads the exemplary cast with Welsh valley vivacity tinged with an intriguingly needy edge, but ultimately all the women in this play are inherently selfish and are searching for a diversion to the mundane everyday. Aren’t we all?
The Nightingales at Theatre Royal Bath until 10 November 2018. Running time 2 hours 2o minutes including an interval. Production images by Geraint Lewis. For more information and tickets please visit the website.