You’ve never been to a pub quite like this. Where music, mates and good times collide, Choir of Man is more than a musical – it’s also a play, a concert and a celebration of the pub as a place to share a laugh, some banter and your feelings. From creatives Nic Doodson and Andrew Kay, this production fills Melbourne’s Playhouse with an inviting atmosphere that perfectly emulates the feeling of sharing a beer with your mates. For 90 minutes, strangers become friends, and all worries are left at the door.
The welcoming charm of the production kicks off immediately once you enter the auditorium. The stage-built pub features a functional bar with real beer that the entire audience can take advantage of. Everyone is invited onto the stage, or rather into the pub, for a free drink they can take back to their seat and enjoy during the show. It’s a brilliant creative choice that exemplifies the message of the show – that the pub really is a safe space for anyone and everyone.
Strengthening that message is the focus on audience interaction, something most other productions will typically shy away from. Beer may be flowing at the beginning of the show, but it also flows throughout, with members of the nine-part cast handing out freshly poured cups along with packets of chips (or crisps as they are in this UK pub). The show opens with The Poet, played on opening night by Alistair Higgins, inviting and encouraging positive audience interactions, including singing and clapping along to the chart-topping tunes within. From here on out there’s a sense of ease that falls throughout the theatre as the audience collectively embraces the laid-back vibe, with a few even lucky enough to be invited on stage and participate in the show.
One thing to note is that the production isn’t guided by a plot as musicals traditionally are – there’s no flowing story beyond the core idea of friends having fun and bonding with each other in a pub setting. While it’s initially a jarring revelation, especially for anyone accustomed to the typical musical formula, it doesn’t end up being much of a blight on the production as you’re enticed to just enjoy every moment as it comes.
In lieu of a narrative are The Poet’s monologues, written by Ben Norris who proves himself as a true wordsmith. These monologues are the show’s unexpected highlight – each one is heartwarming and sentimental, giving the production an emotional punch that speaks on the importance of community, friendship and sticking together. The cadence and delivery of these monologues by Higgins adds to the entertainment factor – he’s wonderfully charming and well-spoken, knowing exactly when to switch on the comedy and when to appeal to our emotions.
One area where there’s room for improvement is in fleshing out the characters. The idea of “guys hanging out in the bar” works very well for the message here, but I feel like beefing this production up to include a narrative, or at least delve deeper into the characters lives, could go a long way. There’s a monologue that touches on each character’s name and gives a brief synopsis of who they are, which is nice and heartwarming in the moment, but I can’t help but see the opportunity to turn them all into diverse characters.
As much as there’s a large focus on the pub as a space for community, comedy is a big part of the production. Between the bouts of physical comedy, well-timed jokes and hilarious moments of crowd interaction, the audience was erupting with laughter across a good portion of the show. Part of the show’s charm is that there’s no “funny guy”, every performer has as much of a role in delivering the laughs as the next, giving every character the feeling of being a real person.
Being a jukebox musical, the nine-man cast perform harmonised instrumental versions of huge hits with the assistance of the four band members positioned in full view high above the pub’s backdrop. From Guns N’ Roses and Adele to Avicii and John Farnham, there’s an eclectic mix of tunes that are performed exceptionally well by the ensemble. This is a great example of a well-balanced group of singers where no one voice overpowers the rest – they all harmonise really well and it’s at times quite beautiful to watch. There’s the occasional moment where the mics were too low or the voices were too soft to be heard over the instrumental music, but we’re talking individual lines and words as oppose to entire musical numbers.
While far from being a conventional musical, Choir of Man is without a doubt a memorable experience at the theatre… pub… pub theatre. It excels in creating an inviting sense of community, spreading good vibes and putting a smile on the face of everyone in the audience. It tugs on those heartstrings while inducing laughs that reverberate through the theatre. The lack of a strong narrative and character depth indicates room for improvement, but it doesn’t strip away the show’s entertaining charm. Visit the stage, grab a beer and settle in for a night of fun with a crowd full of mates, celebrating friendship, connections and the pub.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Choir of Man is now playing at the Art Centre’s Playhouse in Melbourne through to February 11th, 2024. For more information and to purchase tickets, head HERE.
Reviewer attended on Friday January 5th, 2023.
Photo credit: Danysha Harriott