Arts Theatre, London
Big burly men who sing like angels while dispensing free beer….what’s not to love, right?! It isn’t hard to fathom the appeal of The Choir Of Man, which has, pandemic notwithstanding, triumphed at festivals, and in the States and Australia, since its 2017 debut on the Edinburgh Fringe, but is only now making its West End debut: the term “crowdpleaser” was coined for shows such as this.
Since the economics of running a production with a cast of nine and a band of four presumably couldn’t be made to work in an actual pub, which is where this raucous melange of jollity, sentimentality, classic pop/rock numbers and audience participation truly belongs, the producers have alighted on the down-at-heel 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 cast of make up for it.
The show itself is like a mash-up 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), with all of the nine male “choir” members having specific identities, although they are too sketchily introduced to make much impact. 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, but threaten to extend the novel evening beyond it’s natural length.
The singing and instrumental playing (Jack Blume is the musical supervisor, orchestrator and vocal arranger) are magnificent however, although the muddy sound design means that the lyrics are barely comprehensible most of the time. That said, most people will already know the words to ‘The Impossible Dream’, The Proclaimer’s ‘500 Miles’, Queen’s ‘Somebody To Love’ or Sia’s ‘Chandelier’ (the song stack is nothing if not eclectic). Personally, I enjoyed the few lyrical moments the most: there’s a stunningly performed (by Miles Anthony Daley) 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 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. The syrupy sentimentality and extensive audience weren’t for me, but most of the crowd were loving every minute of it. This is also that rare West End show that feels as though it is aimed squarely at the cis straight male market. It’s going to be a massive hit, and although billed as a limited season, I could easily imagine the Arts being occupied with this for a couple of years.
‘The term crowdpleaser was coined for shows such as this’: @AlunJohnHood predicts that @choirofman will occupy @theartstheatre for years to come. ★★★ #TheChoirOfMan #theatrereviews #WestEnd