Arts Theatre, London
They’re back, those big burly men who sing like angels while dispensing free beer… yes, The Choir of Man has returned to town and it’s just the tonic that we need in these grim times. The term “crowd pleaser” was coined for shows like this concert-revue-jamboree hybrid, with a song stack featuring everything from Guns’n’ Roses, Queen, Avicii and Sia, to showtunes, Celtic folk songs and much more besides.
It feels like a warm bear hug: populist in the most positive sense of that word, deeply sentimental and musically breathtaking. Since debuting on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017, this eclectic parade of songs has triumphed across the USA, Canada and Australia, at numerous festivals and in an earlier West End season that opened at the end of last year. Frankly, it’s not hard to see why.
It’s practically immersive theatre: the economics of running a production with a cast of nine and a (sensational) band of four presumably couldn’t be made to work in an actual pub, which is where this raucous, loveable melange of fabulous music, jollity, some tears, lots of exhilaration and a fair bit of audience participation truly belongs, the producers have alighted on the slightly ramshackle Arts Theatre.
This does feel like the next most appropriate venue, with its sticky floors and rickety seating, and designer Oli Townsend has gone to town blurring the line between the fictional Jungle Pub of the show and the auditorium: photos, hung up coats and hats plus other pubby paraphernalia line the walls of the stalls. If the rough-round-the-edges exuberance of Nic Doodson’s production sometimes feels a bit hemmed in on a traditional stage, the sheer talent and bonhomie of the current cast, a mixture of newbies and Choir of Man veterans, make up for it.
Reminiscent at times of Tap Dogs (the stage floor and many of the tables take a hell of a pounding, thanks to Freddie Huddleston’s rambunctious choreography) and Once (complete with onstage working bar but without the plot), the show is as big of heart as it is loud of volume.
All of the nine male “choir” members have specific identities and, even if they are too sketchily introduced to make much impact individually, they collectively make a winning team. Lengthy poetic monologues, celebrating the camaraderie of pub life or mourning the loss of welcoming spaces for the whole populace to elitist urban re-development, are beautifully performed and penned by Ben Norris (“The Poet”), and carry rather more emotional heft and sincerity than I gave them credit for when I first saw the show last year.
The singing and instrumental playing (Jack Blume is the musical supervisor, orchestrator and vocal arranger) remain magnificent however. If at times the boisterous sound design gets a little overwhelming in the smallish auditorium, obscuring some lyrics, most people will already know the words to ‘The Impossible Dream’, The Proclaimer’s ‘500 Miles’, Eagle Eye Cherry’s ‘Save Tonight’ and so on. The few lyrical moments are most welcome when they come: there’s a particularly stunningly performed (by Matt Beveridge) and staged version of Adele’s ‘Hello’ which sees the pub loner contemplate a lost love while his oblivious mates react in slow-mo to a football match on TV (all while exquisitely delivering gorgeous multiple part harmonies, because that’s how talented these blokes are).
The whole cast are a likeable, prodigiously talented, testosterone-fuelled bunch and, if all the male posturing gets a bit much at times, the virtuosity of the singing and energy of the performances are pretty hard to resist. There isn’t a weak link in the present crew but I especially loved Michael Baxter’s comically bossy pianist (“The Maestro”), Matt Thorpe’s clarion voiced pocket rocket “Joker”, glorious Lemuel Knights delivering an outrageously camp take on Rupert Holmes’s Pina Colada song, and the stunning vocals of Levi Tyrell Johnson on a soaring version of ‘You’re The Voice’. Violinist Darius Luke Thompson feels like a star in his own right.
If audience participation isn’t your thing (I loathe it) then avoid aisle seats in the stalls, but make sure you get to the Arts for ninety minutes of sheer uplift and joy. This is effectively the male answer to Six, and it’s pretty damn great. A rousing smash hit, and the kind of show audiences flock back to multiple times. I’m so glad I got to experience it’s unique verve and musical bravura again.