The Underbelly Festival
You had me at free booze! Welcome to The Jungle, a pub, inside the upside-down purple cow situated in a fairground in West Brompton. Bet everything is making sense now, isn’t it? Let me elaborate. The Underbelly Festival, normally hugging the river at the South Bank, has spread like a virus…OF FUN! Now in two locations, inflated grape-coloured bovines pepper the city, all eyes wide and legs to the sky. With street food, a sandpit, bars, and the ever-changing theatrical options London Wonderground is a mini-festival for those not wishing to see a speck of mud or leave Central London.
The shows are picked accordingly; feel-good heavy hitters to delight and drive drink sales. But hold my beer, says The Choir of Man. What if we make a show all about beer… sorry, I meant friendship? After a sell-out international tour, all sprouting from a knock-out Edinburgh fridge debut in 2017, London gets it with both barrels from the nine strong male cast.
This show has everything, apart from a cohesive plot. But in the middle of the tap numbers, Broadway and pop covers, folk ballads, energetic dancing and spoken word you don’t really care. We are introduced to various pub archetypes, who then confusingly sing songs that are only sometimes related to their characters. However, the vocal skill is impressive, and the songs are rousing crowd-pleasers.
Nic Doodson (producer/director) knows precisely what people want, and gives us constant colour, movement, vocal blasting, and comedy. Ben Norris’s writing and narrating involves some nice use of spoken word and very loosely ties the songs together. The show does try and touch on some deeper issues, but lightly enough to not ruin the audience’s buzz from the free beer passed out on Covid safe spatulas. The reminder of the withering UK pub landscape set alongside the male camaraderie is an (almost) sobering touch to an otherwise upbeat song cycle with oomph!
Performance-wise, Mark Loveday is by far the strongest singer, belting out some powerful notes, and providing the backbone of the show vocally. Zami Jalil‘s comedic piano-based rendition of The Proclaimers’ 500 Miles is also truly a gift. Keith Henderson in a demanding tap routine gives it every inch of energy in his body. The focus on pub culture and support is important given the statistics on male mental health in the UK, but there are also issues in underlining the assumption that pubs are male-dominated spaces.
Nevertheless, if you want a day sipping cocktails on a fake beach under the gaze of the towering Met police building, and an evening singing your heart out, follow the signs for the big purple cow! Finishing off with an old folk song dedicated to past drinking partners the love of the British drinking culture is heartwarming. Down your pint and on to the next pub!
Written by: Ben Norris
Directed by: Nic Doodson
Produced by: Nic Doodson
Choir Of Man is performing at London Wonderground until 5 September. Further information and booking via the below link.