Review by Daz Gale
How many times can one person review the same show? That’s the position I find myself in with The Choir Of Man today. Having previously reviewed the show in 2021 and 2022, surely I have said everything I have to say about this show – as my consistent five star ratings have shown. That’s what I thought anyway so imagine my surprise when, during the show, my brain started writing a brand new review. If I didn’t think I could love the show more than the first two times I visited, I couldn’t have been more wrong. How did I find my third round?
The Choir Of Man has gone to take on the world in recent years. Its supposed last orders following an initial six month run at the Arts Theatre saw punters coming back for more, enjoying a second open-ended run at the same theatre since September 2022. On top of that, the show has enjoyed stints at the Edinburgh Fringe and Sydney as well as European and US tours. So what is it about this show that makes its audience become regulars, enjoying repeated visits? I have already reviewed the show in depth so I wanted to use this review to try something a bit different and talk about what I think the key to this shows success is and why I would encourage everybody to enjoy a pint or two at the jungle.
If you are unfamiliar with The Choir Of Man, this is not so much a musical or a concert – more a hybrid of theatre which features a rather unique mix of fictional acting and elements of the actors real lives too. The action takes place in their local pub, known as The Jungle. As we are told early on in the show, this pub has always had a choir and this is the current cast. Throughout a speedy 90 minutes, they joke, tell stories, tap, throw crisps into the audience (You don’t get that at Phantom of the Opera) and, of course, sing. Boy, do they sing! Essentially, they transform the Arts Theatre into a fully functioning pub, with audience members being able to get a pint on stage before the show starts (and perhaps even during the show for a lucky few).
One thing I have mentioned in both my previous reviews is one of my favourite aspects of the show and that is how it is not afraid to challenge attitudes to what it supposedly means to be a man. The show takes on perceptions and stereotypes about the lads you find down the pub and flips it on its head completely. While we still have to deal with the same old human dustbins on twitter spouting nonsense about real men not showing feelings, luckily shows like this exist to tell people there is nothing wrong in doing so. If you need to express your emotions with an angry tap sequence, go ahead. If you need to talk, let out your feelings or have a good old cry, not only is there nothing wrong with that, it is encouraged. The jungle and, in turn, The Choir Of Man is a safe space. This attitude is crucial to be given a stage like this and could do a lot of good in the long run.
The Choir Of Man keeps itself fresh and lends itself well to repeat visits due to each new cast bringing something different to the show and each cast member putting their own stamp on the role. While they are playing characters with nicknames including “The Beast” and “Joker”, they also go by the real first names of the actors playing them. This helps bring something more personal and unique to each individual to the role. Whether or not the character they portray is similar to how they are in real life, they inject a bit of their own life into the role. This is where the line between acting and real life gets blurred and what makes the show so unique and incredibly special.
This is most apparent in a truly beautiful section where The Poet reveals what is home to each of the nine members of the choir. This is tailor made to them and features raw, honest and revealing aspects of their own real lives – the struggles they’ve overcome, tragedies they’ve faced and what is inside their heart. Always an emotional watch, their ability to connect so purely is unlike anything else you are likely to see on a West End stage and one of the things that makes this show so outstanding. Their determination to make a difference continues beyond the stage as The Choir Of Man have teamed up with mental health and suicide prevention charity CALM (The Campaign Against Living Miserably) for a year-long fundraising partnership.
That brings me nicely on to the current class of The Choir Of Man and what a cast they are. Michael Hamway is gloriously captivating as The Poet while Daniel Harnett giving a brilliantly cheeky portrayal as Joker, with a vocal range that consistently impresses. Mark Irwin is equally commanding and comical in a turn as The Barman that would usually be considered a standout. However, it is very hard to single out standouts in a show such as this where all nine are given their own time in the spotlight and come together to form one cohesive unit. In that respect, this is a cast of 9 standouts (13 including the band) or one big group standout.
Tom Carter-Miles performance is a true beauty as The Beast and Michele Maria Benvenuto brings something completely different to The Maestro in a role he has truly made his own. Adam Bayjou swaps the French revolution in Les Miserables for a pint down the pub, blowing everyone away with his phenomenal talent and Andrew J Carter delivers a stunning ‘The Impossible Dream’ as The Bore. The cast are completed by two of my favourite performances of the night – Ben Goffe who proved himself to be a triple threat, particularly impressing in a mesmerising tap routine; and Luke Conner Hall who melted every heart as The Romantic, especially in a sensitive and emotional rendition of Adele’s ‘Hello’.
The Choir Of Man is a good example of not judging a book by its cover. When I first heard about the show, it didn’t sound like something I’d enjoy in the slightest. This show is deceptive in what it offers, full of depth with multiple layers that peel away as the show unravels. Each layer offers an element of emotion, feeling and connection. This is a show with the effortless ability to make you grin from ear to ear and shed a tear, sometimes mere moments apart. Part of this is down to its versatile and innovative song selection, from the ridiculous care-free vibes of ‘Escape (The Pina Colada Song)’ to the heart-wrenching ‘Dance With My Father’. Giving a whistle-stop tour through multiple emotions in 90 minutes, the overarching feeling is a sense of community and one that ensures you leave the theatre with a sense of euphoria.
For this review, I wanted to look at the show in a different way, but it would be remiss of me to not acknowledge the people responsible for the success of this show so here goes: Nick Doodson and Andrew Kay have created something incredibly special, with Doodson’s fun and often unconventional direction breaking down the walls not just between actor and performer but also cast and audience. Oli Townsends scenic design brilliantly recreates a pub, extending into the audience (Look out for the urinal… literally), Freddie Huddlestons movement and choreography allows for some glorious routines (Is Beerography a thing?) while Ben Norris’ monologues really are exceptional and multifaceted in their writing. Hollie Cassar’s musical direction and Jack Blume’s musical supervision, vocal arrangement and orchestration takes some classic songs in new and inventive ways, always with the highest quality and a unrivalled success rate – ‘(I’m Gonna Be) 500 Miles’ as a piano ballad being a prime example of the innovative nature of the show.
For the millions of people who enjoy nothing more than going to the pub, there will be a sense of familiarity in The Choir of Man. For me, going to the theatre is my safe haven in that respect but both share the aspect of community and the therapeutic nature of having a place you belong, somewhere you can lose yourself in and truly be yourself, unashamed about expressing your emotions. The Choir Of Man brings the pub to the theatre and, in doing so, opens up two at times opposing worlds to express similarities in a show that is surprisingly life-affirming and ultimately beautiful. With no shortage of heart and the ability to give you a warm feeling inside, The Choir Of Man feels like a hug in theatrical form. During the show, they mention the thousands of pubs who have had to close their doors in recent years. One thing is for sure, The Choir Of Man won’t be calling last orders anytime soon.
The Choir Of Man is playing at the Arts Theatre, Tickets from http://choirofmanwestend.com/
Photos by The Other Richard