Melbourne Fringe Review: Choir Girl

by Jane

Choir politics, it seems, are a very big deal.

Which choir you’re in; who they accept and who they reject; their history; their venue; their accompanist; what section of the choir you are in; what food you bring; how much you rehearse; who gives whom a carpool.

Anything I’ve missed? Dozens of things, I’m sure.

Sarah Collins’ Choir Girl is a somewhat befuddling look into the world and the politics of choirs, of being an outsider, and of finding spaces for the lonely. A one-woman show, it is at its core, a small and simple story about Susan (alto) joining a new prestigious choir two bus trips away, while struggling to fit in amongst the other women of the choir and desperately fantasising about the accompanist.

This seemingly simple, one-woman show, though, is far from small. Joining Collins on the small stage in the Lithuanian Club Ballroom is an ensemble of fifteen women making up the choir: making this a small story epically told.

Collins’ Susan is earnest and heartwarming in all the right ways, while also being dark and incredulously manipulative. Incredibly dorkily invested in choir, slightly socially awkward, judgmental, and slightly lacking in empathy and social awareness, Collins nonetheless manages to pull of a character that, if we’re not exactly rooting for her, we’re still in some way cheering her on. This choral world – which to me is entirely foreign – becomes a refuge for the lonely Susan: a place where she can blend perfectly in as a good choir girl should, but you get the idea she feels she is so good at blending in she is probably the best at blending in, and so she is probably the best in all circumstances.

With some recorded music, the show really sings (look at me, being punny) when the sound design is provided by the choir. Fringe time is a time for shows which bump in and bump out in ten minutes at every performance; where lighting grids are limited and put up for several shows; where space is space and storage space is tiny, and Choir Girl finds its way to overcome these limitations. Sarah Walker’s design of milk-creates holding items present and spoken about in the text and the lighting nicely complements the action. Moreso than this, though, is the physical presence of the sixteen women on stage.

There is always something great about seeing a large cast on stage, and perhaps even more so on a small stage in the fringe rather than at the Regent. These women, with their black shinny flats, white tights, starched maroon dresses, and hair tightly pulled back off their faces in high in neat buns, are more than the constantly judgmental and muttering choir, however: when they’re not standing casting a judgemental eye over proceedings, they become a bus shelter or a grand piano.

Director Celeste Cody treats Susan with an evenhandedness so the work is curiously sweet through the darkness, also balancing the central character against the ensemble.  The resulting show is hilariously funny, heart-twingingly sad, but ultimately hopeful in the small ways that you know, for all her flaws, Susan has a heart, and will find someone way to (maybe manipulate herself into) being happy.

One of the sweet things about the work, too, is how much you can tell – even behind the characters – the women are enjoying being up on that stage and telling this story. On the night I went, a particularly loud laugh from the audience caused the cast to corpse on stage. Collins struggled to read her way through a postcard as the ensemble stood behind her, squeezing their eyes shut and pursing their lips to stop a giggle. Eventually, Collins couldn’t help but break out of the scene. “We’ll chalk this up to a fringe moment, okay?”

Corpsing or not, Choir Girl finds the right measure between laughter and darkness, with Collins and Cody playing around with a laughter that bites.

And a little bit of choral Britney Spears never goes astray.

Attic Erratic presents Choir Girl by Sarah Collins. Directed by Celeste Cody, producer and production manager Danny Delahunty, musical arranger Tom Pitts, choir director Chrissie Robinson, soundscape arranger Jessica Graham, lighting and set design/construction Sarah Walker, costumes Sarah Collins and Celeste Cody. With Sarah Collins and ensemble. At the Lithuanian Club Ballroom with the Melbourne Fringe until October 13. More information and tickets.