There were long periods of time over the last year when the simple pleasure of heading down to your favourite pub and having a pint (or two) with your mates, simply wasn’t an option. Perhaps the importance of the local bar to many people’s lives has never been fully appreciated, and following the experience of lockdowns, The Choir of Man makes it feel all the more important.
Not that the show is a result of the pandemic, The Choir of Man has been playing everywhere from The Edinburgh Fringe to the USA and Australia over the past few years. It made its London premier this Summer at Underbelly’s London Wonderground, and was such a hit it promptly announced a transfer to the West End’s intimate Arts Theatre.
This genre defying production is set in a bar, ‘The Jungle’ and it is in this cosy setting that we meet the pub’s choir. The Choir of Man doesn’t have a story, it’s not supposed to; instead, it reflects on the importance of the public house as a space in the community, and the varied souls that pass through its doors. It also very cleverly picks up on the fact that stories are often created themselves within the pub walls, and live on long after the hangover has faded.
Of course, there’s also beer. Quite a lot of beer, audience members entering the auditorium early might find themselves treated to a free pint being served right there on stage. This is no gastropub or craft ale house, it’s a traditional pub with real beer, crisps and pork scratchings.
And so the men are ‘real’ too, all assigned names that supposedly reflect their personality, such as The Hard Man (Tom Brandon) and The Joker (Matt Beveridge) and Piano playing The Maestro (George Bray).
All the men play instruments on stage, Richard Lock particularly impressive on the guitar, but they are also accompanied by a four piece band, which includes violinist Zami Jalil, who quickly becomes an audience favourite.
The main thrust of the production is musical, with our cast belting out, and stomping along to, an unlikely array of hits. But between songs are poetic monologues penned and performed by Ben Norris. They are surprisingly and incredibly touching, perhaps all the more so following the last twenty months.
The music covers everything from Sia to Avicii, with a sing along to The Proclaimers also delighting the audience (joining in is very much encouraged). There’s one song that might initially be considered a little cheesy for this kind of production, and then Miles Anthony Daley stands up and delivers such a stunning performance that even the boisterous press night audience hushed to pay attention.
Similarly, Ben Norris, who is not solely confined to delivering the monologues, performs a breathtakingly beautiful version of Luther Vandross’s ‘Dance With My Father’ which if it were released tomorrow would surely be a contender for the number one spot this Christmas.
Producer and director Nic Doodson has allowed The Choir of Man to grow and develop just as real life friendships do, the result is an astoundingly inclusive and laid back show that doesn’t feel like a performance at all; for most of it you simply feel like your hanging out with your mates.
Of course, the pub is not an exclusively male domain, but the title of the show should make it clear enough that this production does focus on men, and more specifically the relationship that men have with each other. It challenges the idea of masculinity and shows male vulnerability at its most raw, and the power of other men to pick up the pieces when required.
The Choir of Man is one of a handful of current West End shows that originated at The Edinburgh Fringe, but its popularity across the globe demonstrates its power to showcase the human connection. It is unlike anything else you’ll see on the West End right now, full of surprises and absolutely bursting with (beer) barrels full of pure joy.
What The Choir of Man does so well, is capture that magical moment we often feel when we go to the pub; the moment that comes just before you get too drunk, when everyone that walks through the door is your best friend, and when you feel more care-free and uninhibited than ever before. To then distil that into an hour and twenty minute performance is genius. A certain beer brand don’t do West End shows, but if they did, it would probably be The Choir of Man. Enjoy responsibly.