A Singing Group in fine voice... if a little repetitive

Review by Paul Nelson

MY GREATEST fear, one of many, was that the new play at the Chelsea Theatre would turn out to be unacceptably similar to both The Full Monty and the more recent The Glee Club. Fortunately, it is neither.

The Singing Group, which opened this week, has been painstakingly researched and it shows. Research in itself does not make it a play but it does make it an interesting evening in the theatre. What does make it a play is the clever juxtaposition and well thought out reactions of this particular mixture of diverse characters.

Sure, it has its token gay man, what play doesn't these days, but Brian is well 'out' and once the play gets over this, the fact never interferes with the narrative and indeed helps it along marvellously when it turns out that the youngest member of the group, the innocent little singing angel Felicity, falls for him.

It is also very telling in the storyline of Gordon, a man whose problems are massive, not least being he is a devout Jehovah's Witness.

Tanya, the woman who is taking the classes in the local hall, was once a pop singer who fell from grace by falling for a married man and falling pregnant. Then as her career waned she had to provide for her son who is now at university. Having heard a lot about her from Brian, who was her number one fan, we get a tiny sample of how good she was.

Lucky, who reluctantly agrees to go along to the group with her friend Brian, is a woman with a haunted past which has turned her into a hard wisecracking, unfeeling bitch. Desperately sexually frustrated and determined to get a man, any man, she has been continually turned down or ditched after a one-night stand. Little wonder she derides everybody and their efforts.

Felicity is a young musicals buff with stars in her eyes. She works in a supermarket and is constantly deliriously happy since the days she spent in a special needs school. It was only when her mother remarried that her improvement commenced.

It is a little hard to swallow that Lucky, Brian and Felicity all had father problems, and I suppose in a way so does Gordon with the Almighty Father, but these similarities do not hinder the play.

A far more serious flaw is the play's length. It could do with a good 20 minutes taken out of it. It may well be in the interests of authenticity but it seems redundant that we listen in fervent silence to a recording of a boy soprano, and also that we have to endure the repetition of the rehearsals. Some repetition is necessary of course, but it is far more interesting and amusing to watch Tanya's teaching methods getting the bird from Lucky than hearing a song sung all the way through after hearing it previously in sections.

The performances, as is usual these days, are well worth the admission. All of them are completely believable creations, and it is matter of conjecture as to which came first, the performances during rehearsals of the play under the excellent direction of John Burgess, or the shape of the script.

If the director is going to cut any of it, he will be at it now, if not, the length of the play seriously stands in the way of its transfer. These days length also impinges on an audience's attention span.

Whatever its future, it should be seen. It is another of those evenings where one cannot decide which performer is the better, most of the press night audience went for Felicity and it's easy to see why, but then there are four more actors, in my eyes of equal worth. It's always fun finding out.

The Singing Group by Judith Johnson, Directed by John Burgess, Designer Simon Daw, Lighting Designer James Whiteside, Musical Director, arrangements and music for Psalm 63, Cathie Kaye. WITH Richard Teverson (Brian), Alexis Zegerman (Lucky), Lorraine Brunning (Tanya), Akiya Henry (Felicity), Garry Cooper (Gordon). Presented by The Chelsea Theatre at The Chelsea Theatre, Worlds End Place, Kings Road, London SW10. 020 7352 1967.