“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.
“There’s a lack of convention inbuilt in the show, which means it feels totally normal for someone to appear in a bear costume”
Oh Mother seeks to express the contradictions of motherhood, the oddities and difficulties, as well as some of the pleasures and absurdities. It’s chaos, random sketches tumbling into each other, one after the next, with no particular through-plot or message. Costumes include Grecian gowns and golden crowns, a sequin bra with two golden babies suckling, a power suit with only one heel, and a leotard. The set consists of a massive sign – ‘BABY’- lit up like an actress’s dressing room mirror, intermittently flashing and flickering, with a dishwasher stage left, a cello stage right, more golden babies strewn across the floor, and a massive semi-sheer curtain, pulled this way and that throughout. As I say, chaos.
Which all seems perfectly fitting for the subject matter. There are occasional moments of joy or peace, but for the most part, the script lays heavily on the disorder and change that having a baby brings about. This is later explained in a discussion between Abbi Greenland (one half of the Rashdash core) and her mother: they don’t want to appear smug, or dwell on how happy and wonderful their lives are now that they have babies, no matter how true that is. Because, Abbi says, it’s more important to talk about how hard it is. She’s not wrong: Watching three new mothers talk about the joys of motherhood for ninety minutes would be a drag. But there’s plenty of joy in this show already, even if it’s not quite so explicit.
A conversation between a new mother (this time Helen Goalen, the second core Rashdash member) and her partner about division of labour, for example, explains that, despite him offering, despite her previously saying they should split the labour evenly, she doesn’t actually want him to help with night feeds. She wants to feed this baby all by herself, from herself, even if it exhausts her. She wants to make all the decisions about this tiny being, to be in control entirely. It’s complicated, and it’s not made to look easy, but ultimately Goalen is expressing the strange ecstasy that comes from being the entire life source for a little person.
This scene is also particularly glorious because dad is wearing a big bear costume. This is never explained, but it feels like a way of softening the dynamic between man and woman. As Abbi later mentions, she’s now very reliant on a man, which, presumably, has never happened before and is, obviously, tricky for someone who’s spent their whole lives fighting against a patriarchal system. So, put him in a bear costume, and suddenly it doesn’t feel quite so patriarchal.
There’s a lack of convention inbuilt in the show, which means it feels totally normal for someone to appear in a bear costume, or for the cast to break into a musical number or a bit of expressive dancing. Similarly, it’s not unusual to suddenly have a very frank discussion about how babies change a person, and therefore change friendships, all while sporting the aforementioned sequin bra and golden suckling babies.
Simone Seales, the exquisite cellist and third member of the ensemble, also includes her stories of motherhood, or rather her journey to choosing it. Despite there being various takes on the theme throughout- the mother suffering Alzheimer’s being taken care of by her grown daughter, or the mother of a new mother, talking about her own experiences thirty years ago- Simone’s experiences aren’t quite as integrated into the show. Which, to be honest, isn’t all that disruptive. But it does feel a bit like Abbi and Helen are one part, and Simone is another. That being said, her cello score ties the whole show together, giving a sense of intent to what might have otherwise felt a bit random.
Performances are funny and frank, unafraid to be physical and vulnerable, serious and silly. It’s the perfect show for new mothers, a show of solidarity, although it’s not just for new mothers, which is handy, seeing as they might still have a tiny person strapped to their chest. If you can, though, it’s well worth getting the babysitter in for this one.