Review by Daz Gale
Everyone’s favourite pub has opened its doors again as The Choir Of Man is back in the West End after a highly successful season that concluded earlier this year. This was a show that took me completely by surprise last year to become one of my favourite shows of the year. The question is – would it hold up to repeat viewing and did I have anything else I could say after already reviewing it last year? Well, make mine a double cos there is so much more to say…
The Choir Of Man is set in a pub called The Jungle and sees 9 of its regular punters come together to tell stories and sing songs in an extremely versatile and often unexpected production. If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea (or pint of beer), there is a lot more to this show than meets the eye in a show that isn’t afraid to challenge stereotypes and show its massive heart.
Each of the 9 cast members plays a particular type of person with names such as “The Beast” and “the Romantic” – each immediately introduced with a brief summary of their characteristic. It might be that they are getting over a broken heart, love a practical joke or is even a bit of a bore. These are people that we are meant to recognise in every day life, and from trips to the pub. What is brilliant about this is these characters unravel to reveal more about themselves.
The show is helmed by a character called The Poet, usually played by Ben Norris, but brilliantly played by swing Gavin Ryan on the performance I went to. A beautiful character who ties together the seemingly loose strands of the show effortlessly with gorgeous monologues, written by Ben. There were three swings on in the performance I went to, and a particularly inspired touch is a section where The Poet narrates what is home to each of the 9 cast members, but rather than fictionalise their character makes it about the real actor playing that role, tailoring it depending on which performer is on for that performance. This gives a sense of intimacy which allows you to enjoy the escapism of the show but also get to know the real people behind the roles in what was a highlight.
With a show called The Choir Of Man you would expect some incredible voices to burst from the stage, and that would be an understatement as the very best of the best have been gathered to bring this show to life. As The Barman, Lemuel Knights not only gets some of the comedic highlights but also gets to bring the house down with a rousing performance of Queen’s ‘Somebody To Love’ while Levi Tyrell Johnson is the voice behind an undoubted standout moment in ‘You’re The Voice’. The talents don’t stop with solely singing though, with Michael Baxter as The Maestro giving a unique take on The Proclaimers ‘(I’m Gonna Be) 500 Miles’ while Jordan Oliver gives a breath taking tap routine to accompany ’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’.
The songs that have been included in The Choir Of Man range from classics you might expect to drunkenly sing (or shout) along to after one too many mixed in with more tender and surprising moments. A hilarious ‘Escape (The Pina Colada Song)’ and a unique singalong of ‘Under The Bridge’ in a urinal blend in with a truly poignant rendition of ‘Dance With My Father’ while the harmonies on a tender version of Sia’s ‘Chandelier’ are simply exquisite. A particularly rousing ‘Some Nights’ ups the fun factor to ensure everybody is having the time of their life, while a closing performance of traditional number ‘The Parting Glass’ allows the cast to show off their talents to their full potential.
These classic songs are given new life thanks to some innovative and refreshing new orchestrations and arrangements from Jack Blume, which makes even the most overplayed of songs feel brand new again. Backed with a band on stage, getting in with the action, along with cast members playing instruments, it leads to a truly wonderful sound reverberating around the theatre.
The fourth wall is well and truly shattered in The Choir of Man with audience members being pulled up on stage, cast members running around the theatre handing out drinks and even various things being lobbed at your head (not as sinister as it sounds, I promise). This leads to a show that is more an experience than a straight performance, and one that balances the medium between immersive theatre and a more conventional approach perfectly.
The way The Choir Of Man creates the illusion you are in a pub rather than a theatre is a testament to its brilliance. This is done thanks to the intricately detailed set design from Oli Townsend which fantastically extends around the theatre with various details filling the walls surrounding the seats. While it may seem spontaneous at times, this is an expertly crafted show with direction from co-creator Nic Doodson a chief part of that success, along with fellow creator and producer Andrew Kay and the clever choreography from Freddie Huddleston that at times is the best kind of chaos there is. Just watch out for the sticky floors!
What makes The Choir Of Man exceptionally special is the way it challenges attitudes to what masculinity should be. From making it clear early on that this isn’t a “boys don’t cry place”, It takes perceptions of what a man should be and the kinds of men you will find at your local pub and turns it on its head. It makes it clear that it’s not only ok to express your emotions, but it actively encourages you to drink them in, with some deep and poignant moments dotted around the piece – from references to what we have all been through with Covid to heartbreak to losing a loved one. While this really is a fun show and one that will keep a smile glued to your face throughout, at its heart is a show with a whole lot of heart – and one that it is not ashamed to show to the world.
The Choir Of Man is a show that might feel like it won’t work on paper. It may feel like a throwaway show that is good for a quick buzz but has left your mind before last orders. Like the message it hopes to convey throughout the show, it challenges what you think it might be and proves to be something else entirely. A truly beautiful show with more heart than you would ever expect – it creates a fun atmosphere and brings a whole lot of meaning to it. If this show was incredible last year, it is inexplicably even better this year. Without a doubt The Choir Of Man is the most fun you will ever have in the theatre. I will definitely be going back for another round.
The Choir Of Man is playing at the Arts Theatre. Tickets from https://www.choirofmanwestend.com/
Photos by The Other Richard