For those who have ever lived in or visited the UK and Ireland, pub life is evidently pivotal and absolutely transcends drinking culture. It’s where you meet, it’s the dropped pin on the map you aim for, it’s the start and maybe even the end of your evening. It’s community, it’s connection, it’s social adhesion and it’s a place you miss when you’re from there or not there. Unfortunately, pubs in that part of the world (and here too) are consistently vanishing at an alarming rate (over 300 in the UK in 2023) and The Choir of Man doesn’t hold back in taking a swipe at property development and its role in the problem.
What gets lost when places of coming together are levelled to make way for places to be alone?
Created back in 2017 by Nic Doodson and Andrew Kay, this British musical was first presented at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and has at its core a group of male regulars who sing together in a pub choir. Performance poet Ben Norris genuinely captures the heart of the work having written monologues that offer transition between musical numbers, some social commentary, and of course, the backstories of those that gather at the bar. Stories are shared in glimpses and hover in reality given that the performers real accents, real names and origins are used throughout. Much is made of what ‘The Jungle’ public house means to those who meet there and while there are moments of unsubtle sentimentality, there is also poignant cut through that genuinely affects.
Seconds after your ticket is scanned the tone of the evening becomes evident as you look to the stage to see hordes of audience members being served beer from a real bar while chatting casually with the cast and each other. This is a show that invites inclusion and participation and it really is wonderful stuff, but as Broadway and West End audience behaviour is increasingly called into question, the alluring proposition of crossing the fourth wall can at times feel like a licence that may in fact be carrying a few points. Interestingly, the finest moments of the evening aren't the rousing applause conjuring numbers but those that focus on the vocal dexterity of a seriously talented bunch of singers. It’s also within these moments that some of the more raucous elements in the audience display some reverence and mercifully pipe down allowing us to hear the fantastic arrangements of the show’s musical director Jack Blume.
With adaptations of some well-known pop and folk songs, The Choir of Man is of course yet another variation on that most tenacious of formats – the juke box musical – but set in a pub rather than a Greek island or Parisienne night club!
Opening nights are always fraught affairs but one involving a significant pre-show scramble to get a violinist and three understudies to stage speaks volumes about the professionalism of this company. While the roles in the show are relatively even, Alistair Higgins absolutely warrants a shout out for his excellent work covering the Poet; both the cohesive through line of the show and certainly the character with the largest volume of material. Tom Brandon also deserves special mention for covering the Hardman particularly given he’s not even billed as an understudy but as the resident director!
Despite a few issues with mic and instrument levels making things feel a little chaotic at times, this is a really well put together production, a great night out and so incredibly worthy of the success its found in venues around the world including previous visits to festivals in Australia, an ongoing season at the Arts Theatre in London, cruise liner residencies and some US dates in the pipeline too.
There’s no doubt that a show like this with its seeming championing of the (predominantly) straight white male is going to bring some commentary about inclusivity, but there’s room for all stories on our busy stages and after all, not everyone lives in Melbourne’s inner north and wants to see Movember cancelled!
Go and have a drink with these fellas, they’re seriously good fun – Cheers!
Arts Centre Melbourne in collaboration with Andrew Kay presents
The Choir of Man
created by Nic Doodson and Andrew Kay
Director Nic Doodson
Venue: Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne VIC
Dates: 4 January – 11 February 2024
Tickets: $64.90 – $109.90