The Glee Club is a stealth play: it creeps up on you a bit unbeknownst. One minute it's all early 60s nostalgia, with sherbert dabs and Horace Batchelor of K-E-Y-N-S-H-A-M's infallible pools system on Radio Luxembourg 208; and the next, a tight-knit village community is ripped to shreds by sexual peccadilloes.
It's 1962 and it's a Yorkshire mining village of the sort that, thanks to Mrs Thatcher, no longer exists in 2004. The community gels on a number of levels, mainly because the men all work down the pit and entrust their lives literally to one another on a daily basis. They work in constant physical danger, have no hiding place as they face one another naked in the shower at the end of the shift and they drink heavily together in comradeship, the language ripe and the jokes mucky.
And, like nearly all mining communities, they make music: some go for brass bands, some for male voice choirs, but here in the village it's a glee club - five blokes and the church organist in close harmony. Not cutting edge stuff, of course, even for 1962: a smattering of your Neopolitan tenors' songs, “Que sera, sera”, “You always hurt the one you love” - hardly the makings of a West End catalogue show.
It all begins to feel a bit like Godber territory, but writer Richard Cameron and director Mike Bradwell, who developed the piece together, have something more hard-edged in view. The fault-lines begin to appear as the organist (Stefan Bednarczyk very finely playing a man who loses neither pride nor dignity even when vilified) approaches The Glee Club treasurer for emergency cash and reveals that he is under suspension from the church on suspicion of interfering with the choirboys. Nobody believes the accusation, but in the over-reaction of support for him he has to reveal that he did once, in his past, have a homosexual affair - and, this being 1962, even that is too much for Scobie (Steve Garti), a man whose wife is forever presenting him with daughters he can no longer cope with.
Throw in Colin (Oliver Jackson), a wannabe pop singer who gets his girlfriend pregnant and is devastated when she aborts the child, Bant (Colin Tarrant) whose wife has run off with the Rington's tea man (a particularly northern anachronism which bizarrely continues to this day), Walt (Mike Burns) who lost his wife and had to send his children into care and is now wracked with guilt when he sleeps with his neighbour, and Jack (James Hornsby), who prefers a bit of posh totty when he should be doing his union duty and defending Bant against a trumped-up charge by the pit bosses - against such odds, it would be a miracle if the village survived, let alone The Glee Club.
Baldly stated, it's something of an over-egged pudding. But the writing and construction are masterful, the direction very sure-footed and every single performance to die for. In his programme note, Mike Bradwell says he thinks the play will become a classic; and I'm not about to disagree with him.
- Ian Watson (reviewed at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds)