“we leave with music in our hearts and a smile on our face”
The immediate sensation on walking into the Arts Theatre is one of nostalgia. Almost a yearning, for what is a rapidly disappearing institution: the local pub. The sticky floor, familiar faces. Beer mats on the tables instead of menus. No wine list. No cocktails. Just beer taps and bonhomie. “Welcome to the Jungle”. It’s an odd choice of name for a traditionally English (or is it Irish?) pub. But the regulars have probably just adopted the title in homage to Bon Jovi who provides the opening number to this exuberantly brilliant musical tribute, jukebox, concert, mash-up.
It is all very manufactured, but we soon forgive and forget as we are swept along in the flow of spilt beer and emotions. Our host is slam poet Ben Norris who guides us through the self-penned narrative. “We’re not here to tell a story” he announces, which is good counsel because there isn’t one. “We’re here to give each of us life”. Which is even better. The life and energy that every cast member brings to the stage defines, if not eclipses, our idea of a ‘bloody good night out’.
The choice of songs might sometimes be suspect, but the arrangements, courtesy of musical supervisor, vocal arranger and orchestrator Jack Blume, are captivating. Rousing anthems rub shoulders with stripped back a Capella moments. The synthetic seriousness of the lyrics is either lampooned or embraced depending on the personality of the singer. Occasionally schmaltz does gain the upper hand, but it can’t sustain itself. Humour intervenes, and a natural showmanship that is simultaneously virtuosic and blokey. Freddie Huddleston’s choreography belies its inventive precision with spontaneity and spirit.
With no story to follow we are left to wallow in the glorious performances. Whether this is deliberate or not is unclear, but it is in song that the personalities shine. Norris introduces us to the stock characters: the beast, the romantic; the hardman and the barman. The joker and the bore, and so on. But they are sketches until the music starts. Michael Baxter, as the maestro, gives a wonderfully playful and skilful rendition of The Proclaimers’ ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’ while Jordan Oliver’s handyman persona tap dances furiously through Paul Simon’s ‘Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover’. Adele’s ‘Hello’ finally gets the poignancy it deserves, very cleverly set against the backdrop of the boys watching the football on the pub TV screen. Norris raises the hair on our necks with Luther Vandross’ ‘Dance with my Father’.
The overall message, if there is one, is of the importance of human connection. It presupposes that it is a dying art and much of the blame is put on lockdown. It is part fantasy in that it solicits a world that was better without qualification. But that’s nostalgia for you – it ain’t what it used to be. If you can ignore the various platitudes (‘home is where the heart is… but what if your heart is all over the place?’) “The Choir of Man” is a stunning musical show. And rightly so the crowd were on their feet before too long. It’s heartening to see a production like this make it into the West End, but there is also the feeling that it yearns to get back to its roots. Back to the Fringe. Back to the pub. One of the most moving moments was when the microphones were switched off for a folk finale. “So, fill to me the parting glass, good night and joy be to you all”.
The ninety minutes spent in the company of “The Choir of Man” has been overflowing with joy. It’s closing time, and we leave with music in our hearts and a smile on our face. And with the knowledge that, should we wish it, it will be opening time again tomorrow.
“The Choir of Man is that rare thing, a simultaneously deeply familiar, yet different, West End musical experience”
“Welcome to the Jungle” is the friendly sign on stage that greets audiences as they enter for an eighty minute sing along at the Arts Theatre in Covent Garden—and what a welcome it turns out to be. The Choir of Man, first created in 2017 for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, has since toured around the world to great acclaim. It’s easy to see why. Despite being built around a simple premise—a group of men gathered together for an evening in their favourite pub, the Jungle—the show turns out to be more than just a bunch of blokes sitting around, swapping songs, and drinking beer. The Choir of Man is an updated take on the importance of the local pub in people’s lives. And there isn’t a whiff of stale beer from beginning to end.
The Choir of Man, created by Nic Doodson and Andrew Kay, is built to entertain. It also pulls at the heartstrings in unexpected ways. The cast invites you into their lives, giving their real names. They’re not there to brag or to pretend to be something they’re not—but to talk frankly about their vulnerabilities. In doing so, they cast light on why men, in the midst of their greatest joys and sorrows, head unerringly to the local pub. Doodson and Kay’s approach strikes just the right chord—especially when sung to the right tunes. The Choir of Man sounds like it shouldn’t work as well as it does, but the earnest, often rhyming, monologues (written by Ben Norris) create solid characters for us to identify with. The monologues are also the introductions to the roles that are linked with the songs. This technique does verge on the corny from time to time, such as when a man, married too young, and bored with the relationship, puts a personal ad in the local paper. But The Choir of Man has a fresh take on Rupert Holmes’ Pina Colada Song, (written long before dating apps, remember). The spirit the cast brings to this song, and the other old favourites, creates an infectious energy. When asked, there are plenty of volunteers from the audience willing to go on stage and take part in the fun.
The production displays a wealth of easily accessible performance and design touches that match the concept. The performers of The Choir of Man have pleasant voices, project solid niceness of character without being dull, and they’re well dressed in unassuming clothes (good choices by costume designer Verity Sadler). They move well (kudos to Freddie Huddleston for the choreography that manages to look natural even while upping the energy in the room.) The talented live band is placed above the pub so that the audience can see their work, while watching the dynamic singing and dancing below. Oli Townsend has created an effective set design that gives director Nic Doodson just the right kind of space to work with. The playing time of The Choir of Man is also well judged—long enough to keep the audience delighted, yet eager for more.
The most remarkable thing about The Choir of Man is not what a good evening’s entertainment it is, and it is—but in seeing how many men in the audience seemed more than content to be there cheering and singing along instead of spending the evening at, you guessed it, their local pub. This show clearly hits a nerve with the guys—and it’s a happy one. But The Choir of Man is not just for them. The atmosphere throughout is adroitly managed by the team on stage and off it, and everyone, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, will feel welcome at The Jungle. The Choir of Man is that rare thing, a simultaneously deeply familiar, yet different, West End musical experience. And the more intimate Arts Theatre in Covent Garden, in the vicinity of all the big musical theatres, is exactly the right place for this singular show.