THE CHOIR OF MAN, Arts Theatre

The boys are back in town.


Review: THE CHOIR OF MAN, Arts TheatreThe standard pub routine of racking up the pints while railing against the world and having a singalong with your mates has been turned into an exuberant gig-theatre show. The Choir Of Man is, by turns, charming, cheeky and unafraid to challenge the state of the world outside their drinking hole. If Irvine Welsh had been born in England and written Trainspotting while sat in an old school boozer high on molly, this may very well have been the result.

Created by Andrew Kay and director Nic Doodson, the show has travelled the world at least twice over since it emerged at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017 and debuted in London’s West End last year. Its appeal is clear to see: nine handsome chaps pound out a series of songs for all the family that veer from the dad rock of Guns ‘n Roses’ “Welcome To The Jungle” to the grandad rock of Paul Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” and the mum rock of Adele’s “Hello”; maybe next year we will hear a rendition of “Baby Shark” for the younger audience members. The boisterous delivery of this stadium-friendly repertoire delivered in the tiny Arts Theatre is powerful enough on its own but there’s more than just kickass songs here.

Frontman Ben Norris introduces his fellow singers twice. The first time around, he gives each of them laddish sobriquets that could have come straight out of a Guy Ritchie flick (“The Hardman”, “The Joker”, “The Beast”, “The Hardman”, “The Maestro” etc) and gives us a brief background to how they got these nicknames. Frankly, that’s all a waste of time as we never get to hear these monikers again: the next time around, Norris introduces them by their first names in a section where he goes around the stage recounting what each cast member defines as home. In between, we get snatches of audience interaction as some women and a man are serenaded and backstories are given a brief airing if only to kickstart the next song. No man is an island but the isolated and shallow pools of character study are too often to be ignored and too little to make any kind of difference.

In the scale of things, that’s a minor quibble for a show that delivers hard on two fronts: ensemble numbers that capture the head as well as the heart and emotive monologues that lift what could have been a jukebox musical up to another level. Some of the bigger songs really deserve Mack Truck-sized voices rather than the souped-up Transit vans that are deployed here but, thankfully, a band above the stage provide tons of sonic ballast.

Rupert Holmes’ punchy “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” is an utter blast with added trumpet, piccolo and guitar from the floor and, while Sia’s “Chandelier” has been covered more times than I’ve had disappointing craft ales, the choir’s a capella version effortlessly fills the soul as does Norris’ heartrending take on Luther Vandross’ “Dance With My Father”.

The monologues cover a number of topics around the subject of human connection. Pubs and clubs are disappearing as expensive housing goes up in their place and “community spaces are replaced by gaps.” Male suicide and its prevalence are explored: there were over five thousand suicides in 2020, the last year for which we have figures; three-quarters of those (just under four thousand or over ten per day) were by men, a consistent trend going back to the mid-1990s. This all has the potential to be a downer or, worse, cheap emotional filler, but The Choir Of Man walk the talk and ask us to support their two partner charities CALMand Beyond Equality. It’s a classy manoeuvre which shows that theatre – an art form with a literal platform – should arguably do more to benefit the real-world situations it uses for dramatic fodder.

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