'The Choir of Man' review — a drink-fueled evening of pop music favours song over substance
Home is where the pub is in the much-travelled The Choir of Man, the paean to sensitive blokes boozing and singing that is chancing a perch in the West End. Much of the rest of the world (Australia and America included) have already experienced this venture, which started at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2017, and one can immediately see it as a perfect fit north of the border during festival season, its patrons fuelled by a pint or two or four.
In the harsher glare of London’s commercial theatre, this show, much like another current Edinburgh transfer The Shark is Broken a few streets away, looks rather dramatically exposed, as writer-performer Ben Norris all but worried aloud at a curtain call appeal to the audience to spread word of these West End newbies to their friends. Devised by Andrew Kay and Nic Doodson, the second of whom is also the director, the all-male, 90-minute vocal jamboree comes across as sweet enough but also oddly flimsy. Yes, I was captivated by the arrangements and presentation of a diverse array of songs ranging from Sia’s signature, and lyrically startling, “Chandelier,” through to Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” (here given a compulsively rhythmic makeover) and even a nod in the direction of musical theatre with “The Impossible Dream.”
But why hasn’t it been possible over the past four years to come up with some sort of stronger framework for the sequence of songs as presented by a stage full of men who are given a single identity in the programme and that’s it? And so we have a muscly Tom Brandon as The Hard Man, Miles Anthony Davis as a so-called “restless romantic” and so on, most of them defined in a sentence by where they are from. Ben Norris himself, we’re told, is from Nottinghamshire, which segues to a reference to Black Lives Matter that was met with no response whatsoever at the matinee I attended. One senses that societal change isn’t as important to this show’s target audience as clambering onstage for the free beer that gets dispensed beforehand – and even once the show has begun.
Indeed, not since Five Guys Named Moe have I come across a show in which drink at times takes precedence over performance. Before anything has happened, patrons are invited on to the Arts Theatre stage and given a pint, and several game souls were brought up during the show itself to survey the action up-close – the not dissimilarly-staged Once was never like this. (Oli Townsend’s set would be right at home with that gorgeous onetime Tony winner.)
The vibe on offer is contradictory. On the one hand, we’re meant to engage with these nine lads as gentle souls who can play piano, deliver various harmonies, and even tap dance as required. But there’s also something of the Brexiteer culture to the show’s much-proffered fantasy of a pub-loving England in which time has stood still and food, for instance, is delivered straight up and not – gasp horror! – served in something as implicitly continental as a brioche bun.
After a while, I tuned out to the often vacuous narrative, such as it is, and focused instead on the music, which is where The Choir of Man does in fact deliver. I could listen on an endless loop to Brandon leading a hard-driving rendition of John Farnham’s “You’re the Voice,” and “Waterloo Sunset” has rarely sounded so wistful and alluring – not even in the Kinks-themed musical, Sunny Afternoon, to which it was central. You can see the show becoming a staple of community theatre, given its celebration of community, and it’s no surprise to hear that it has found a home aboard ship, where it would doubtless prove a suitable nightcap. Whether that’s enough to keep it going in the same venue that helped launch the stratospheric trajectory of SIX is open to question: I loved these guys while they were making music but when they morphed into poet-philosophers, I’m afraid I tuned out.
Photo credit: The Choir of Man (Photo by Helen Maybanks)