‘Choir Boy’ at the Royal Court

If an example were needed of how excellent performances, a clever set, and some beautiful singing can rescue a rather meandering and over long, wordy play, then Choir Boy by Tarell Alvin McCraney, is one.

Set in the US, in the all boy, all black, Charles R Drew Prep School, it traces the story of a dysfunctional group of boys through their final school year, disputing over the control of the school’s gospel choir, hanging onto the long held, honourable traditions of the school, in a rather prissy and disputatious way.

As with many stories of schooldays, it focussed on the out of place boy, the one who can’t quite manage to fit in amongst the jocks and their acolytes, the religious devotees and the plain ordinary.  The main protagonist is Pharus, the openly gay leader of the choir, who, from the outset, is striving to be awkward and provocative.  He is also bright and, in this script, allowed to be incredibly verbose, arguing against many of the keenly held views of the majority on the importance and influence of Spirituals to Black American history.

He is hard to like in the first half of the play, and it is only, towards the end, through his conversations with the kind hearted Anthony, his room mate, that we see his vulnerability and the costs of all his sprightly campery.

It is only the Civil Rights campaigning history of elderly teacher, Mr Pendleton, the only white character, and his reactions when the boys fight and insult each other, that we have any idea of the time context  in which the action takes place.  It is contemporary, with many references to the past, but with little indication of what will happen to the boys when they leave the rarefied atmosphere of the school.

The design and the use of the space upstairs at the Royal Court, with a transverse stage, takes us into the dorm rooms, the showers, and, by having the actors sit amongst the audience in some scenes, directly into the classroom and assembly halls of the school.

A significant weakness in the play is the role of the Headmaster Marrow, who seems particularly unsuited to dealing with a group of adolescent boys, and has not anticipated any of the conflicts that will arise between then, even allowing Pharus to run rings around him in argument.  It is a mystery how he could have become the head of an all boys school without understanding that there might be love between the boys.

But the great strengths, which render the experience of seeing the play a joy, are the performances of the actors, and the music, close harmonies of five voices singing both familiar and unfamiliar pieces.

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