Melissa Blease reviews The Nightingales, starring Ruth Jones, on at Theatre Royal Bath until 10 November

Blokey Ben could have been the new Andy Murray if an accident hadn’t abruptly ended his prospects on the tennis court. Today, as he himself admits, he couldn’t even be Jamie – although he does quite fancy himself as the next Liam Gallagher. If Ben’s self-assured, ambitious wife Connie had been given the right breaks, meanwhile, she’d be known as far more than a former model who once appeared in a Kellogg’s ad.

Gentle history teacher Bruno dedicates much of his free time to caring for his mother who, at times, is no longer even aware that Bruno is her son. Vulnerable Diane has suffered and struggled with grief, and now desperately craves a baby to fill the void in her life, while her emotionally repressed husband Steven – a couple of decades older than Diane – regrets never fully dedicating his life to his love of music.

And it’s the search for those three emotional destinations that unites Steven with the four characters that come under his wing in his role as choirmaster for the village singing group, which is the focus of this new production, The Nightingales, by William Gaminara.

Despite their individual backstories of disappointment and frustration, the choir is a cheerful little ensemble, supportive of each other and very close-knit (extremely close-knit in the case of two of the group). But the harmony is set to be shattered by the arrival of Maggie: an ostensibly amiable (if a bit needy) woman in search of companionship – and attention. A single mother dealing with serious health issues, Maggie swiftly turns the group’s spotlight-focus onto her… but then she turns it back onto the entire group by suggesting they enter Talentfest, a potential route to Britain’s Got Talent – and of course, it’s only polite of the choir to invite Maggie to sing with them. But Maggie’s involvement stirs up a distinctly unharmonious hornet’s nest…

Written by William Gaminara (already familiar to many drama fans for his role as Professor Leo Dalton in the long-running BBC series Silent Witness), directed by the legendary Christopher Luscombe and starring Ruth ‘National Treasure’ Jones (of whom, of course, more later), The Nightingales opens in Bath prior to a small UK tour and a West End transfer; and when hatched on the London stage, it’s destined to fly straight to the top of the Best New Play of 2018 tree.

Steven Pacey brings subtle pathos to his role as choirmaster Steven – a disappointed man with few leadership qualities in either a professional, personal or emotional sense, exuding a quiet air of frustration that gently increases in volume as the drama rolls along. As his wife Diane, Mary Stockley is Pacey’s perfect foil: despite her breezy veneer, her innate sense of desolation, despondency and despair is palpable from the off.

Lightening the mood, Ben (Philip McGinley) and Connie (Sarah Earnshaw) are, in many ways, the most carefree couple of our beleaguered sextet, McGinley using playful, laddish charm to counter Earnshaw’s hard-nosed determination, with both eventually allowing us glimpses of the enduring love and mutual admiration that, despite their snipes and sneers, binds them together.

And Bruno? While Stefan Adegbola does a lot with the little bit of backstory he has to work with, his character remains largely distant… well to us, at least; without sounding the Spoiler Alert klaxon, it’s safe to say that Diane knows Bruno best.

Nobody, however, really gets to know Maggie. It’s quite unnerving to see lovely, lovely Ruth Jones (who many of us, depending on our TV viewing choices, tend to refer to simply as Myfanwy, or Magz, or Stella, or Nessa  heck, she’s the Julie Walters for the zeroes generation) portraying a character as darkly disconcerting as this – but my goodness, can Jones ‘do’ dark.

You know that feeling you get when you take a bite of a chocolate you’ve never tried before, and at first you think “Oooh, lovely!” but then, as the chewing sets in, you start to think “what’s that hard stuff in the centre – is it bitter lemon?” and eventually you end up wanting to spit it out? Well, Ruth Jones’ Maggie is that chocolate.

To say a drama is straightforward and accessible could be translated as damning with faint praise in a time when tricksy, shock-of-the-new productions are more in vogue than ever. But when a script is this good, the cast this accomplished, and the director this skilled at drawing out every facet of their characters, a ‘straightforward and accessible’ drama can be elevated to deliver the X-factor that makes UK theatre fans so proud of the talent that little Britain’s got – The Nightingales brings all those elements together in perfect harmony.

Main image: Ruth Jones as Maggie in The Nightingales. Credit: Geraint Lewis