First conceived back in 2016 in what from here seems quite another world, this life-enhancing juke-box musical has travelled successfully around the world from Edinburgh to Adelaide, to the Americas and now back to London. It has a simply but winning formula – pubs, blokes, good fellowship, finely crafted singing of favourite standards, and dance made to look as natural and spontaneous as possible.
We are invited to ‘The Jungle’, with a traditional – and working – bar and the usual scatter of tables, stools, pint jugs and a bare floor – ‘beer, and pork scratchings or nothing.’ Nine men with carefully distinguished personas, but some similar well-groomed beards are introduced by one of their number – Ben Norris – who weaves poetic slam monologues around the characters of the guys and the music they are about to sing. It is a mixture of traditional blokeish warmth and inarticulacy and verbally dexterous riffs on newly sensitive masculinity.
A few pools of sentimentality accumulate at points and the show is about two songs too long overall; but the blend of energy, technical skill and unabashed heart is a joyful comfort blanket after so much loss of sociability in the last years. There are some serious home truths here about male bonding and developing ways of sharing the bad times as much as the good that are always worth hearing. While there is not an overall story there are emotional symmetries projected through the themes of the songs and the banter between them that bind the evening together. Moreover, there is always something happening by way of significant movement, gesture, and interaction thanks to the careful choreography of Freddie Huddleston.
Musically the evening impresses. Arranger and supervisor, Jack Blume, has done a fine job with the blend of pop, Broadway and traditional numbers. There is a four-piece band placed on a platform above the stage which provides drive and energy and instrumental variety when needed, especially with some intriguing violin solo lines; and then the mood is refocused for more intimate close-harmony and ‘a capella’ numbers. For me these were the most memorable – a charmingly wistful version of ‘Waterloo Sunset’, a version of Sia’s ‘Chandelier’ that drew you in powerfully, and then right at the end as the encore an unfussy rendition of ‘The Parting Glass’, with the mikes turned off, that served to return us gently and regretfully to the world of everyday.
There are no weak links in the cast, it is a genuine ensemble effort, with contrasted solo vocal talents but effective collective blending and shading of tone, timbre, and dynamics, and all the guys capable of degrees of athleticism as well as simply making shapes. They are clearly having a great time and the bonhomie was infectious. The boisterous audience loved it from start to finish, joining in with relish, tears, and cheers. Interestingly it was an audience with as many women as men even though women hardly feature in the music or action, except when some ladies from the audience are invited up on stage to receive the dedication of a song.
Finally, a word to the wise: there is a lot of beer on offer, which is great of course; but the toilets in this theatre are some of the most minute and insalubrious in Theatreland. Though you might say that that too is part of the authentic pub experience!
- Created by Nic Doodson and Andrew Kay
- Photographer: Piers Allardyce
- Director: Nic Doodson
- Leading Performers: Matt Beveridge, Tom Brandon, George Bray, Miles Anthony Daley, Freddie Huddleston, Richard Lock, Mark Loveday, Ben Norris, Tyler Orphé-Baker.
- Arts Theatre
- Until: 13 February 2022
- Duration: 80 mins, no interval