Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘The Glee Club’, which is Theatre Clwyd until Saturday 14th of March. The tour includes Malvern in April.
Where there’s muck … there’s talent.
Richard Cameron isn’t the first writer to mine that particular seam, in search of a cracking story. The idea that men who grafted all day long in our once-great industries were just as capable of artistic expression off shift has been explored in some exceptional plays in recent years. I’m thinking of ‘Brassed Off’, ‘Billy Elliot’ and ‘The Pitman Painters’, for example.
Kate Wasserburg’s new production for Out of Joint Theatre puts the ‘The Glee Club’ firmly amongst the best of the bunch. It’s a much more sensitive, fully rounded and understated story than its bedfellows. But, when it comes to the pithead showers scene, it certainly has more balls than ‘The Full Monty’.
Cameron places his play in the South Yorkshire coalfield at the turn of 1962. Mining is a thriving industry – with a good 20 years still to run till Margaret Thatcher sets her sights on it. The Unions are quiet and ineffectual. The mining community is yet to be fractured. There is an underlying love between the men who get together to form a flat-capped quintet – ‘The Glee Club’ – dedicated to singing songs their dads loved from the days of big bands and ballads.
But there are signs of change. You can now tune into Radio Luxemburg on your new Ferguson transistor radio. Elvis has appeared on British TV. Bill Fury is nudging the charts. The Beatles will soon be back from Hamburg.
And despite the draconian illegality of it, homosexuality is beginning to filter into the collective consciousness.
Cameron very cleverly weaves all these forces into the lives of the six men who sing in the Working Men’s Clubs and Welfare Institutes in and around Doncaster; joshing and ribbing themselves about their private lives.
Their banter is boisterous, their concerns are genuine … and usually about women. All the talk is of cheap conquests, lingering longings and painful divorces.
All, except, for the more elderly Phil, the pianist, who is inexplicably short of money and stands on the canal bridge at night, looking at the moonlight in the coal-black water. Secretly, he’s being blackmailed. The man who’s kept the lads together all these years is about to be the unwished-for cause of their downfall … only to be replaced on stage by younger men with electric guitars.
This is a lovely piece of work simply because it tells, so openheartedly, the inevitable story of a society moving up through the gears. Musically, it sweeps us up from the Concert Party days of ‘It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum’ and leaves us on the doorstep of Rock and Roll. It hurries us along from post-war innocence to the harsh reality of revolution. And it’s all done through a variety of cameos and conversations that – with the advantage of hindsight – gel in the audience’s minds into a portrait of a period of real transition.
The music is beautifully performed – but deliberately ‘square’. Numbers like “Que Sera Sera”, “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and the theme from “Rawhide” stagger in from the late 50s; rooting us in an already fading era.
It’s very much an ensemble piece. Each character has his moments.
Linford Johnson leads us through the action as the young lad with stars in his eyes, desperately hoping to be talent spotted. He’s a figure of eternal optimism – till Cameron writes him an unexpected moment of absolute tragedy. There is a price to pay for stardom, even if you don’t make it.
Clwyd’s Kai Owen sings like Mario Lanza and his character Jack is old enough to have served in the war and been elected to the Union. It’s a strong, fatherly, back-bone performance. By contrast David Schofield’s ‘Bant’ is a sexually indiscriminate ‘loose cannon’; oozing danger.
Eamon Riley shines as the gently talented and ever-patient pianist-arranger; older and more worldly wise …and with much to hide from that world. It’s a deliberate and hugely respectful performance through which we rudely discover how miners, back then, dealt with homosexuality deep underground.
The play builds beautifully. The undercurrents rise inexorably as the final big Gala Night bears down upon the singers. I came away with a genuine sense of what it must have been like to have lived and loved in such a community at that time.