The Nightingales at Chichester Festival Theatre - rich, intriguing, finely played...

The Nightingales
The Nightingales

REVIEW: The Nightingales, Chichester Festival Theatre, until Saturday, December 1.

The Nightingales starts quietly enough and even teases us, inviting us to think it’s precisely the kind of play we’ve seen countless times before; that yes, we know where this one’s going.

Well, we haven’t and we don’t.

It’s bizarre that William Gaminara’s play is billed as a “comedy”. The laughs are actually fairly few; instead, we are given an increasingly intriguing drama which suggests that no one can be taken at face value and that no set of relationships is necessarily remotely what it appears.

The gist is that Maggie – beautifully played by Ruth Jones on her return to the stage – finds herself drawn to a group of amateur singers, five people including two couples – Bruno (Stefan Adegbola), Connie (Sarah Earnshaw), Ben (Philip McGinley), Diane (Mary Stockley) and Steven (Steven Pacey).

To varying degrees they welcome the awkward stranger, and it seems for a while as if singing might just give her what it has already given them – a steady focus and a sense of satisfaction.

But then Steven starts to voice what we as the audience very cleverly have already been made to feel: that somehow something’s not quite right about Maggie… particularly when she makes certain claims, claims which we feel swine for doubting.

And through those doubts, it emerges that the harmony the singers strive for is some kind of substitute for the complete lack of harmony in their own personal lives.

This is a play which builds slowly, leaves us intrigued at the interval and twists and turns us superbly in the second half – all testament to Christopher Luscombe’s very fine direction.

Never for a moment does it strain plausibility. It is all very delicately nuanced, so much so that even to say anything about it feels like risking saying too much.

Ruth Jones is excellent in the questions she poses – not least when we finally get some answers. But maybe the performance of the night comes from seemingly the steadiest character of the lot, Steven Pacey as Steven.

There are times in the first half when it feels just possibly too slight for the main house; it most certainly isn’t by the conclusion. It’s a play about the deceits we inflict on others and on ourselves, a piece all the stronger for its restraint – and for the skill with which the actors play off each other.

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