On an exultant opening night for Doncaster's splendid new venue it's not altogether easy to separate the actual performance from the celebrations. But behind the standing ovation from a capacity audience, the speeches and the mayoral presence lies a pleasingly straightforward production, very strongly cast, of a play that fits perfectly with time and place.
The Glee Club by Doncaster-born playwright Richard Cameron – set in the pit village of Edlington - enjoyed West End success when first produced in 2002, but this is its Doncaster debut. It belongs to a much loved genre: working men making entertainment and/or art and fighting off personal suffering, a comic, but poignant, elegy for the Industrial North. This is one of the less sentimental and more realistic examples of the genre. The collapse of the Glee Club occurs in 1962 well before the Thatcherite cull and is due to mistakes and inherent character traits, not to some malignant outside force, and the play ends, not with a triumph or an indomitable "the show must go on" performance, but with a cancelled gig and a reprise of last year's triumph.
The play alternates ensemble scenes full of boisterous comedy and popular songs with quieter scenes, many of them duologues, which reveal the fractures and alliances in the team of singing miners who form the Glee Club and raise money for charity. Jack (an assured and sympathetic Richard Standing) appears settled, contented and a fount of wisdom. His problems take longer to surface than those of Bant and Scobie, troubled respectively by a departed wife and a steadily growing, increasingly demanding family. Russell Richardson and Martin Callaghan skilfully draw out the complexes (and, in Bant's case, psychoses) beneath the brashly vulgar kidding. Walt (Tony Bell, drolly unhappy as a youngish widower) broods over his own loneliness and neglect of his children. Glee Club leader (and church choirmaster) Phil, respectable, even prissy in David Westbrook's performance, gains stature as he proves to be the downfall of the group. And Brett Lee Roberts is an engaging link between past and present as Colin, the would-be Billy Fury of the South Yorkshire coalfield.
Esther Richardson's unfussy production, in equally unfussy sets by Sara Perks, benefits enormously from Sam Kenyon's work as Musical Director – the songs are extremely well drilled and, where appropriate, delivered with a huge sense of fun – and the cast works admirably as a team, in routines that range from the Inkspots to Wilson, Keppel and Betty. The credits list two Casting Directors – a bit extravagant for a six-hander, one would think, but they produced results, partly by picking stalwarts of companies with a great ensemble tradition: Northern Broadsides, Propeller and the much-missed Compass Theatre.
The Glee Club continues at Cast, Doncaster until 21 September. For further information visit www.castindoncaster.com