The Nightingales
by William Gaminara

Directed by Christopher Luscombe
Designed by Jonathan Fensm
Bath Theatre Royal Productions

Chichester Festival Theatre
Saturday 1st December 2018, 14.30

Ruth Jones – Maggie
Steven Pacey – Steven, the choirmaster
Sarah Earnshaw – Connie
Philip McGinley – Ben, Connie’s husband
Mary Stockley- Diane, Steven’s wife
Stefan Adegbola – Bruno

Pictures are from Bath Theatre Royal.


L toR: Bruno (Stefan Agdebola), Steven (Steven Pacey), Connie (Sarah Earnshaw), Diane, (Mary Stockley) Ben (Philip McGinley), Maggie (Ruth Jones)

The Nightingales is a Bath Theatre Royal Production which moved on to Cambridge and Cardiff before Chichester, with Malvern next week. I just realized the tour is in strict alphabetical order. It’ll maintain that if it moves to the West End, which it probably will. We opted for Chichester Festival Theatre instead of Bath- a more straightforward journey in the winter, so we’re seeing it late on. The reviews are all in, and neatly divided. It is a “Marmite” play as the character Ben might say. I’ll explain why Ben might say it later.

The Church Hall / Village Hall set always fascinates. Whether it’s the dance class (Stepping Out) or amateur dramatics, or in my teenage years, practising in a band, or maybe it’s taking kids to ballet classes, or pre-school nurseries, or finally here singing, most of us have done church/ village hall stints.

Maggie (Ruth Jones)

The story centres on a Welsh single-mother, Maggie (Ruth Jones), who has just moved to a village, and listens to the singing group in the village hall. She inveigles her way in, first just to watch. She opens and closes the play with narration.

The singing group consists of five people. Steven (Steven Pacey) is sixty, and the choirmaster. Diane (Mary Stockley) is his second wife, twenty years younger, yearning for a baby before it’s too late. Steven, with his four children, six grandchildren, (seventh on the way) is not. Later they discuss artificial insemination.

The other original members are Connie (Sarah Earnshaw) and Ben (Philip McGinley). Both have once been (almost) famous. Ben was a professional tennis player before his knees failed. It happened in Bournemouth. It would have been the West Hants tournament. Cars used to block our drive parking for it.

His wife Connie was a model for Ambre Solaire because she had a gorgeous bottom. Now she lives in very tight jeans to demonstrate that she still has. That is all nine years in the past. Connie is the ambitious one. Ben is not ambitious. Let’s bring in that “Marmite” quote on the reviews, which are divided between 4 star and 2 star. Negative comments on the script is that it’s full of cliched jokes and quips. And it is. BUT if you look at the text afterwards (I bought a copy) you realize that virtually all the tired, cliched attempts at funny lines come from Ben. Ben is a quipper. Anything anyone says, and he’ll have a knee-jerk “funny” line reaction. He thinks he’s a bit of a lad. We all know a constant quipper and they can irritate (though not as much as the knee-jerk seeker of puns). We’ve lost the context of so many lines but I’m sure Shakespeare clowns were seen as OCD quippers at the time. Yes, his quips are so often a yawn, but they are the mark of the character. The fault is, I suspect, in playing it too subtle a way. I’d make Ben more obviously an OCD quipping prat.

The last character is Bruno, who is black, middle-class with an RP voice and is a teacher. Bruno lives with his mum who is in a state of advanced senility. When he first moved to the village, he went for a run, and (being black) caused so much attention that they sent a police helicopter to investigate. It’s not that far from reality. My son had an African-American friend in Brooklyn. The friend admired my son’s stamina in going for a daily run. My son said “Why don’t you run with me?” The African-American guy said, ‘No way. You’ll be faster than me. They’ll see a white guy running with a black guy running after him, and I’ll get shot!’ Bruno is having an affair with Diane behind Steven’s back. He is falling in love with Diane, but apparently she’s yearning for that baby (that Steven cannot provide). The kitchen is a separate room, and the sex is played out on top of a very insubstantial looking kitchen table. I wouldn’t put two adults on it!

Maggie (Ruth Jones) is comforted by Diane (Mary Stockley)

So it’s a classic situation. Tight group. Bring in the outsider … Maggie … and she stirs everything up. She does this because apparently she has breast cancer, and immediately evokes sympathy, especially from Diane, whose twin sister had it nine years earlier. But is she genuine? As she piles on layers of illness, we begin to wonder.

Incidentally, we discussed the number question. They describe Maggie as the “Fifth Beatle” so are thinking of themselves as a barbershop quartet, singing acapella. OK. Why a fifth Beatle? The “fifth Beatle” of 60s folklore was self-appointed, the American DJ, Murray the K. He was never a performer. You could stretch it to George Martin, who Paul McCartney once called “the fifth Beatle.” There’s an entire Wikipedia page on half a dozen other contenders for the title, but only Billy Preston was a “fifth performing Beatle.” This led us onto the classical material that Steven discusses requiring a minimum of eight singers … but the main oddity is that we mainly see Steven singing with the other four. So there are already five … and when they do perform, there are six. Sorry, too much on that!

Bath. This might be Bruno explaining about Talentfest. I have zero recall of Ben wearing that football shirt though.

According to the publicity, Maggie “urges them to enter Talentfest, a potentially life-changing route to Britain’s Got Talent.” Not really so. Bruno arrives with the advert, and by far the most enthusiastic one is Connie (who is audibly the best singer … Sarah Earnshaw as Connie does a couple of solo linking spots singing Cry Me A River.) Yes, Maggie wades in and is strongly in favour, but it’s not her idea.

Each character gets a monologue section to an invisible reporter presumably answering dumb questions (What’s your favourite colour? etc). The funniest is Connie and Ben, sitting together for their monolgues, then a grumpy Ben refuses to answer sensibly.

The high point of the play is the actual performance of the contest song, You Raise Me Up, with choreography, and Maggie, by then a member, misses a note, dries and messes it up. The rest of the group get out of it brilliantly by changing key and rolling right on. But they’re out.

The song, Bath showing the roof and sides. They positioned this much differently at Chichester in a semi-circle- that was probably a Chichester improvement.

Then we have the repercussions over Diane’s affair, and the revelations about Maggie.

I thought it problematic in the move from light comedy to something darker.  If you had had breast cancer, or a family member or friend had breast cancer and you were in the audience it would be upsetting. It’s not a subject that blends with humour. Maggie is a fantasist and attention-seeker, but then that’s a mental health issue. The writer does tackle issues … he’s right on the spot when in discussing the contest, they suggest Maggie should tell the audience about her cancer to gain sympathy, and that Bruno should be the other speaker … and they hedge around avoiding saying “because he’s black” so he does himself (in some anger). So while Maggie fantasizes, they’re all up for colluding with her.


L to R: Diane, Connie and Maggie. Maggie is sewing Connie into her costume for the show.

The set has been praised in reviews of Bath, and as you can see above, it has sides with high windows, and in another picture a roof, forming a classic village hall. Bath is a proscenium stage. The set is designed for a proscenium or in more modern theatres without actual curtains, “single-end” stages. It runs into trouble at Chichester’s curved theatre (two thirds round) with no curtains. Given the height, it has to lose the ceiling. Given the curve, it has to lose the sides. The village hall floor with its basketball marking is laid square on top, with large black unused spaces either side. The set that reviewers loved at Bath is now basically a flat back end with low cupboards on the kitchen side. It looks nowhere near as good as in Bath pictures. The Salisbury Playhouse village hall in Stepping Out was much better.

It has also compromised the stage positioning. They make good use of the entrance through the auditorium, always a feature at Chichester (impossible at Bath) but then they have to cope with the audience curving round to the sides … and that’s for Chichester only too. We were sitting as it began to curve to stage left (i.e. audience right). When the singers were seated on chairs they were angled stage right, so backs of the head for us, and were many moments like this. It would have been the same for the other half of the audience in several places where actors were facing stage left. In the Bath photos they’re also angled facing stage right, but I guess most of the audience would be sideways on, rather than looking at their backs.

It didn’t look as if enough attention had been put into re-blocking for Chichester’s stage. Wrong theatre for it. Period. As Christopher Luscombe is one of my favourite directors (and should be running somewhere like The Globe!) poor positioning was a huge surprise, but then Chichester is just the five days run, and in spite of its huge size, was going to have to be a compromise. It’s an issue with touring productions in this space … they are never going to look as good as stuff designed for Chichester. I hasten to add that I still consider the two Chichester stages among the very best in the country.

I appreciate both four star reviews. Then, as the two star ones say, dealing with light comedy shifting to a serious issue is very hard to handle. It relies heavily on Ruth Jones undoubted charismatic central role. The play text says “In the original production, Maggie was Welsh, but this is not essential.” OK., but you’d lose a lot. References like “Lady Muck” roll off so well in a Welsh accent (my Welsh mother’s family were fond of it). You get lines too:

BRUNO: She’s got a nice voice.
CONNIE: -ish. For a Welsh person she should be better.

Maybe it’s simply that Ruth Jones defines the character so well that it’s too hard to think of Maggie any other way.

We said afterwards that the village hall setting and the cast of six gave the play a great potential future for amateur dramatic groups. The ages are perfect for starters, as is a 50/50 male / female split. Am Dram groups tend to like engaging in a bit of onstage rumpy-pumpy too. I’m not so sure on further thought. They have to sing … here they have to sing well, but “just about” would work. In the real rural village Am Dram setting, finding a young black guy for Bruno might be hard, though a few text changes would allow Asian Indian or Chinese … it’s very important that any potential Bruno offspring could not look like Steven’s!


Ah, back to my old rant. Theatres decline to credit music and composers even if the song with its lyrics take up considerable stage time. Right at the end of the programme we get production credits. They list three: Cry Me A River by Arthur Hamilton, Someone To Watch Over Me by George Gershwin and Across The Alley From the Alamo by Joe Greene (which I had never heard before).

So what about the stuff they don’t mention? OK, but All I Have To Do Is Dream (mentioned in the play erroneously by Bruno as Dream Dream Dream) is a major feature when Maggie first joins them. Boudleaux Bryant, who wrote it, deserves a mention at least as big as the Finance Supervisor at Bath or the several props makers. Ben dashes on singing Wonderwall by Oasis, written by Noel Gallagher. Then there’s their big production song for the contest, You Raise Me Up by Rolf Lovland and Brendan Graham. It was recorded by The Secret Garden, Josh Groban, Westlife and over one hundred others.




4 star
Domenic Cavendish, Telegraph, ****

Still the performances, directed by Christopher Luscombe  amid a nicely detailed, fittingly draughty-looking church-hall set by Jonathan Fensom are all first-rate, with particularly moving work from Steven Pacey as Steven, the emotionally throttled choir-leader left devastated by the betrayal carried out under his nose, in the stinky adjacent kitchen area.

Arifa Akbar, Guardian ****

What elevates The Nightingales is the strength of its six actors combined with the spark and pace of Gaminara’s script. The dramatic moments are charged, the comedy tickles, the intrigue is sustained and there is a solid entertainment value to it all, even if the final reveal about Maggie is a touch too gimmicky.

3 star
Tim Bano, The Stage ***

A chocolate box play populated by stock characters …The writing is so polished it shines, with every crafted quip, every storyline, every bit of tension introduced then held for just the right amount of time before being resolved. 

At the same time that precision makes it feel very by-numbers.

Anne Cox, Stage Review ***

all very pleasant and nice, but The Nightingales would struggle to fulfil ambitions of a West End slot.

2 star
Sam Marlowe, The Times **

… it’s an inconsequential, darkish comedy about a rural a cappella singing group who set their sights on a spot on Britain’s Got Talent. Sprinkled with snatches of song, it makes a few (fairly obvious) observations about the healing power of music, the politics of friendship and the pack mentality of small, close-knit communities. It’s more flat than sharp, with a languorous tempo and characters too cardboard to care about.

Robert Gore Langton, Mail Online **
Daisy Bowie-Sell, What’s On Stage **


Twelfth Night, RSC 2017
Love’s Labour’s Lost– RSC 2014
Love’s Labour’s Won RSC 2014
Love’s Labour’s Lost, RSC / Chichester 2016
Much Ado About Nothing, RSC / Chichester 2016
Travels With My Aunt, Chichester 2016
While The Sun Shines,  by Terence Rattigan, Bath 2016
Nell Gwynne, Globe 2015

Love’s Labour’s Lost, RSC / Chichester 2016
Much Ado About Nothing, RSC / Chichester 2016
Relative Values, Bath Theatre Royal, 2013
The Jew of Malta, RSC 2015
Volpone, RSC, 2015
Travels With My Aunt, Chichester 2016

Titus Andronicus, RSC 2017
The Merchant of Venice, Globe, 2015

Travels With My Aunt, Chichester 2016


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