The Choir of Man (2024 Melbourne Season) – Theatre Review

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Back at the end of 2019, I experienced a production like no other. I had the best time and was inspired to return to experience the show again. Now, four years later, The Choir of Man has returned to Melbourne with an extended version of the popular show.

To say that I was excited for its return would be a gross understatement I was ecstatic. I was also given the opportunity to attend the media call the day prior and had the privilege of interviewing cast members Ethan Vijn and Norton James.

Originally opening at Edinburgh Fringe in August 2017, The Choir of Man is a jukebox style musical set in an Irish pub known as The Jungle where nine lads enter to drink, sing, dance and simply have a grand ol’ time.

Upon entering Arts Centre Melbourne’s Playhouse Theatre, I was transported into The Jungle. On the stage were tables with their chairs sitting on top, like it was closed for business. Before long, The Barman entered to open up, wiping down tables and setting the chairs. Other members of the cast slowly entered the pub, grabbing a beer and sending cheers to the audience as we took our seats.

But the sitting was short lived as we were invited up on stage to grab a beer. As we grabbed our drinks provided by Grand Ridge Brewery, The Joker, portrayed by Christian Tyler-Wood, began stacking plastic cups on the main table into a giant pyramid until they collapsed. It was so much fun being up on stage and grabbing a beer with the cast! If you’re seated down in the stalls, make sure you take advantage before the stage is full.

The staging of this newer production is mostly the same, with one exception, the band is now visible, perched above the pub. A fun fact about the band that I discovered during my interview with Ethan and Norton is that the band contains some Australian Music royalty with two of John Farnham’s band joining the production consisting of Angus Burchall on Drums, and Craig Newman on Bass. Rounding out the four-piece band is Marcus Kurban on Guitar, and for opening night, we had Kyla Matsuura-Miller on Violin.

So, what is The Jungle? Well, it is more than just a local pub, it is a community and support network where everyone is welcome. A place to escape or a place to work through life’s problems. It doesn’t matter where you are from or what you are going through, The Jungle will have a seat and a pint ready for you.

Unlike your traditional musical, The Choir of Man is mostly non-fictional with each of the nine characters leaning into their own real-life experiences, playing versions of their true selves, with an added persona of the typical characters you might find at the local pub. We have The Poet, portrayed by Alistair Higgins who is the show’s narrator, Aled Pennock plays The Pub Bore, Nathaniel Morrison is The Jungle’s Barman, Tom Brandon is The Hardman, Matthew Campbell is The Maestro, Christian Tyler-Wood is The Joker, Bradley Walwyn is The Romantic, Rob Godfrey is The Beast, and Ethan Vijn is The Handyman.

It is no coincidence that the opening song of the show is ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ by Guns N’ Roses, instantly showcasing the incredible vocal talents and musical ability of the cast. Unlike most musicals, every member of The Choir of Man also plays an instrument.

After an eloquently delivered opening introduction by our Poet, Alistair Higgins, the music continued with Eagle-Eye Cherry’s ‘Save Tonight’. During the number, the cast enter into the audience, bringing a few beers to the patrons in the stalls. As the song reached its end, they plucked a few lucky people from the audience to bring on stage. Little did they know they would become part of the show, with a stunning acoustic version of Katy Perry’s ‘Teenage Dream’ by Rob Godfrey as he serenaded a lucky lady. The harmonies from the cast in this song alone were stunning.

Following on from ‘Teenage Dream’ was our Pub Bore, Aled Pennock, complete with his beautiful baritone voice with a version of ‘The Impossible Dream‘ from the 1965 musical Man of La Mancha. Much like the previous number, Aled sat at the table with a lucky gentleman from the audience as they attempted to stack coasters into a pyramid.

With only four numbers performed thus far, I didn’t think it could get any better, but it most certainly did. Other numbers include Adele’s ‘Hello’, Rupert Holmes’s ‘Escape (The Piña Colada Song)’ and The Proclaimers’ ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’. There are so many songs to love and enjoy, and without running through all of them, there are some clear standouts.

During my interview with Ethan and Norton, I asked each of them if they had a favourite number and after experiencing the show, I can see why they mentioned the songs that they did. Ethan shared, “I love them all for different reasons, but we sing an acapella version of ‘Chandelier’ by Sia. It’s so venerable on stage because there is no music, there is no band, but the show is about the community, we’re nine lads are on stage singing, just themselves, it is stunning”. Well, Ethan, I have to wholeheartedly agree. The harmonies and raw vocals are absolutely sublime.

Although cast swing Norton James didn’t perform on opening night, he mentioned his favourite song to perform in the show is John Farnham’s ‘You’re the Voice’. “Not just saying this, I know its such a cliché as we are in Australia, but it is such an important song. It is one that I enjoy singing the most”. It was easy to see why Norton picked this song as his favourite as it is impossible to be in the audience during this song and not get involved. The cast encourage the audience to hype up to sing the iconic chorus together with them, and to have two members of Farnham’s actual band on stage makes this moment extra special.

Both songs are indeed fantastic, but for me, I think my favourite would be Paul Simon’s ‘50 Ways to Leave Your Lover’. Not just for the incredible vocal performances, but for Ethan’s mind-blowing tap skills. From simply sitting on a chair at the beginning, tapping away the drum beat of the song, to taking over the entire pub, including high up on the bar, Ethan makes it look effortless and this performance is easily a highlight of show.

The main stand out performance of this production would have to be The Poet, Alistair Higgins. His vocals are gorgeous during Luther Vandross’ ‘Dance with My Father’, but Higgins also speaks with such grace and passion that I could listen to him talk for hours on end. There is one moment in the show where we are re-introduced to each of the gents. Alistair talks of their hometowns and what they each love doing the most. I couldn’t help but feel emotional as he delivered this delightful monologue. I can only imagine how uplifting it must be for each of the cast to hear Alistair talk to them with so much love, night after night.

While The Choir of Man is a brilliant display of extraordinary talents of singing, dancing and musicianship, it is The Poet’s underlying narrative that is the beating heart of the show. Alistair talks of the beautiful pubs just like The Jungle that are continuously torn down and replaced with “Shiny tiny one or two-man box apartments”. Alistair also talks of mental health and how it is important to speak out when things are not going well. To lean into your community, your ‘local’, your mates and your family to help you through it. It may not even be a deep and meaningful conversation, just a place to visit and escape for a moment can sometimes be enough.

The Choir of Man is up there as one of my favourite shows. It has a brilliant and incredibly multi-talented, all singing, all dancing, all instrument playing cast, and it has a heart-warming, somewhat therapeutic narrative. It’s interactive, there is laughter, wholesomeness and crowd participation. For those luckily seated in the stalls, you are more than welcome to come up on stage pre-show for a free beer and mingle with the cast while they’re in character before the main event.

The Choir of Man is a wonderful experience, a great escape in its own right, and is show that I would happily see again and again. Whether you have never seen The Choir of Man before or have but want to see its longer version. I highly recommend a look. I most certainly intend to return to The Jungle.

The Choir of Man is now playing at Arts Centre Melbourne’s Playhouse Theatre until February 11th, 2024.

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Photography by Grant Alexander.

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