In recent Fringes and festivals, Sarah Collins has brought us gorgeous tales about adorable misfits who never lose hope. Choir Girl is as achingly funny and beautifully written as Nothing Extraordinary Ever Happens in Toowoomba (Ever) and Donna and Damo, but it’s a much darker story about a woman lost in loneliness.
Choir Girl Susan is alone in a house that’s too big for her because her safely-gay housemate is on a Disney cruise, but promised to bring her back mouse ears, so that’s ok. Luckily she’s found a choir in Sandringham that wants new members and, despite the very long bus trip, she’s an alto who understands the importance of blending and her 1992 local Eisteddfod–winning song shows off her voice.
For anyone who hasn’t sung in a community choir, Susan’s world is so accurate that I could name similar people from choirs I’d been in. There are always the “kissy kissies” who suck up to the conductor, the ones who can’t sing, the ones who think they should be soloists, the men who bring cheap supermarket supper, the nightmare discussions about how much to spend on Kris Kringle and sopranos who make fun of altos. Ok, I added that last one because I know that sopranos ALWAYS make fun of altos, even those with lovely alto voices like Susan’s.
Choir Girl has a smaller cast of characters than Collins’s previous works, which brings us much closer to Susan than we were to Toowoomba’s Kevin John and Wren or even Donna or Damo, and where as her past characters always acted from love and hope, Susan’s shyness/illness leaves her acting from selfishness and hope. This makes her harder to adore, but irresistible to watch.
Her loneliness makes you so want to love her, but her cringe-worthy behaviour leaves you grateful that she’s not your friend. Being torn by a character makes watching her obsession with the choir accompanist hurt – there’s a $2-shop doll that nearly made me cry – as you want her to stop embarrassing herself, but want to see what she’s going to do even more.
Susan’s world is gloomy and what better way to light up her darkness than with a Greek-like chorus; actually, a choir – a female choir in burgundy uniforms, white tights and black patent shoes. Choir Girl was originally written without a choir, until director Celeste Cody (Attic Erratic) came on board. It’s now impossible to imagine this story told in any other way.
Without breaking into Susan’s isolation, the choir are both society’s eyes and Susan’s inner world. They sing schmaltzy love songs with her when Susan needs them, but they whisper and watch and re-inforce how much Susan isn’t in harmony. By giving her company and real music (arranged by Tom Pitts) that isn’t on her discman, Cody’s strong direction ensures that a world that sings Britney Spears love songs is always out of Susan’s reach and creates an onstage voice that isn’t Susan’s.
Choir Girl is different from Collins’s earlier writing. It’s still driven by hope, but I was surprised by its darkness – and equally as thrilled. Susan’s story is a bit sad, but its telling is so funny and full of heart that she’ll stay with you long after the final applause – and you’ll be singing Britney songs for days
Open Fringe programs help wonderful theatre like this to find an audience. I may never have discovered her writing without a Fringe, and that’s a terrible thought.