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The Choir of Man - Arts Theatre

The thing about seeing a show on one’s own terms (as opposed to being part of a press allocation) is that you get to look at a theatre’s seating plan (not on SeatPlan, which I don’t find useful at all, but on the theatre’s own website) and choose your vantage point. I went for front row of the circle at the Arts Theatre for The Choir of Man, and was quite happy to sit down in peace and watch other patrons crowding the stage having a drink before they all got herded off as the show proper needed to start. The temptation to heckle ‘Baa!’ like a sheep at them was, fortunately or unfortunately, overcome.

An aisle seat in the centre block of the circle, however, is not quite the same as an aisle seat in the stalls, even if I had a clear view of everything, unlike my fellow theatregoers in the front row of the side sections who found themselves leaning over to see any action that happened to take place in the far corner downstage. The bad news is I missed out on the possibility of a free beer, handed out periodically as they were during the performance. The good news is that I also, very blissfully, missed out on being hauled on stage. Those who were seemed to take it in their stride, with one lady in particular leaving much of the rest of the audience howling as she went along with the suggestive lyrics in a cover of Katy Perry’s ‘Teenage Dream’.

Set in a pub called ‘The Jungle’ – I’ve never set foot in one, but a quick Google search reveals there are pubs called The Jungle out there – the show celebrates the welcoming atmosphere of public houses, where regulars find friendship and identity. One of the various monologues, most of which were voiced by The Poet (Denis Grindel), laments the loss of pubs across the country, some of which have been knocked down, like other community hubs, in favour of luxury apartments. Unlike another all-male show, Barber Shop Chronicles, it doesn’t talk about the men who don’t go to the pub, and one would be forgiven, watching The Choir of Man, that such men don’t exist.

The audience is introduced to various characters, all rather quickly, with some background details given but, perhaps because of the setting, I didn’t feel as though I got to know any of them in a deep and meaningful way. The Poet appeared to be going through loss and bereavement, with at least two songs introduced as being about people who are no longer with us – but I came away knowing more about his late father than I did about him. Aside from bringing up some women in the audience on stage, you’d be forgiven for thinking this group of lads, given names like The Bore (Matt Nalton), The Handyman (Jordan Oliver), The Romantic (Matt Beveridge) and The Beast (Owen Bolton) – and so on – don’t do anything outside the day jobs except go to the pub. At some point, the show gives up on anything resembling a narrative entirely, and pumps out song after song after song.

It is, however, enjoyable, for its singing, dancing and actor-musicianship. A four-piece band positioned above the bar area provides most of the music. Their version of Sia’s ‘Chandelier’ is, to me, far easier on the ears than the one in Moulin Rouge! The Musical. It’s all cover songs, which smacks of unoriginality, but also of sheer familiarity – I have no shame in admitting I quite liked listening to tunes like ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’ by The Proclaimers and ‘You’re The Voice’, made famous by John Farnham, performed here with great harmonies by a cast who are all excellent singers. In these difficult times, one mustn’t be too cynical about a show that is, despite its narrative flaws, uplifting as much as it is poignant, and joyous as much as it is sincere.

Four stars

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