THE CHOIR OF MAN at the Arts Theatre
“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.
Reviewed on 13th October 2022
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by The Other Richard
Previously reviewed at this venue: