It’s Mad March in Adelaide again, which means the Festival, the Fringe Festival, Writers Week, the now oddly-cereal-like named Superloop 500, Womadelaide and much more. Living in the city is ideal at this time of year, and I’ve loved the opportunity to wander down to the riverbank to see the Symphony for our World (which was an outstandingly beautiful reflection on creation and creativity) and Yabarra: Gathering of Light (which is an engaging and vital project grounding the city in its long history and culture).
In terms of the Fringe, so far I have seen a truly terrible comedian (who I won’t name and shame here) and an absolutely enjoyable choir performance that I have not only been singing the songs from for days, but has also had me reflecting on some deeper themes it touched on.
So, this is my part review and part reflection on The Choir of Man.
Nine talented performers singing well known songs in impressive harmonies is always going to be a recipe for a good night out. The talent on display is pretty remarkable, including a piano virtuoso, a Dein Perry-esque tap dancer, a poet or three, comedic timing, audience participation, multiple instruments and dancing styles, all held together by nine strong voices. Songs covered include those that had the audience clapping and singing along, like Welcome to the Jungle, I Would Walk 500 Miles, Some Nights, and the iconic Aussie favourite You’re the Voice; others that showcased impressive soloists telling stories through melody, like Adele’s Hello, Don Quixote’s The Impossible Dream, and Sia’s Chandelier; a heartrending rendition of Luther Vandross’ Dance With My Father during which you could have heard a pin drop; and an almost benedictory traditional closing song, The Parting Glass.
That this performance is set in a working bar, a classic English pub, where both the performers and the audience are invited to authentic fun and engagement (and to a pint or two) and is drawn together by a narrator who reflects on mateship, community, love and loss, adds to the enjoyment, but also leads me to my deeper musings.
“Some pubs have a football team or a darts club,” we are told. “This pub has a choir.”
The show is a bit of an ode to the local pub, the place where regulars can get together for a drink and share something of life. But we are also told it’s not a “boys don’t cry” kind of pub, and the idea of a community where genuine experience and emotion can be shared and supported – whether just by listening or by lending a hand – is significant throughout the storyline. To me, this is mateship. Friendship. What community should be. What for me as a Christian and a pastor, the church should be. My church is currently doing a sermon series exploring ideas of friendship and community, family, work, rest and play together, and so this show resonated with some of the same ideas, both encouraging and challenging me. Encouraging me that the church at its best has something valuable to say to our culture on this; challenging me that we can too often think we have a monopoly on it or hold it to ourselves, rather than championing it wherever we see it and inviting others into it.
This is also a show by, for, and about men. The (male) friend who recommended it to me warned that I might find it “a bit blokey.” And I did. But in a way that I loved. The characters in the pub are all pretty blokely blokes. (And yes, there is a song performed at a urinal). As a group, there’s a lot of testosterone on display. But there are men with hipster beards and man buns, as well as men with six pack muscles and classically strong jawlines. There are also men of less than average height and of over average weight. More importantly, these are not only men who sing and dance together, but men who are unafraid to both laugh and cry together. These are men who provide a glimpse into what male camaraderie and mateship can be.
And while there is some serenading of women in the audience and relationship woes played for laughs, at the end of the night I realised that they had managed to put on a public performance of broad-shouldered masculinity that didn’t need to objectify or degrade women to do so. (Unlike the aforementioned comedian, who the less said about the better). One review of The Choir of Man I read said this was a picture of the “opposite of toxic masculinity” and that’s not a bad description. In a cultural moment where there are certain voices criticising feminism for seeking to emasculate men, these guys affirm that it is a not an either/or proposition. They reminded me in some ways of my brothers and what I love about them. And in a week where unfortunately I had yet again had some (men) devalue what I do simply because of my gender, I needed to be reminded of that.
Of course, these brothers of mine, in my church family and community, go much further than a 90-minute performance. They don’t just meet the minimum standard of “not degrading women,” but champion and advocate for women, make space for us, support us and honour us, all without compromising their masculinity. I value what they as men have to offer that I cannot, as they value what I as a woman bring. I love doing life alongside them.
As I watched this performance, in the back of my mind was the sermon I had been writing for Sunday. Perhaps that’s what put me in such a reflective mood. Talking about what ‘rest’ and ‘play’ look like for the church, I was challenged to consider how we encourage one another to explore and appreciate creativity in all its forms, and where we are talking about what we see and hear and experience in art, song, comedy, music, where it resonates with the creativity of our Creator, and how it keeps us hearing his calls to life in all its flourishing.