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  • Writer's picturePaul Gainey

Choir Boy at Bristol Old Vic

Artistic Director Nancy Medina’s debut production for Bristol Old Vic, Choir Boy, epitomises the spirit of her first season, with its focus on joy, resilience , and the power of belonging.


The play itself: author Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Tony nominated musical, is a tender coming-of-age tale threaded with soul-stirring coppella gospel hymns and spirituals.


Bristol Old Vic has revived McCraney’s depiction of an all-black, all-male US college-prep school, centring on a quintet of choir boys.


Nancy chose Choir Boy as a statement piece. It is essentially a play-with-music about who we are and how we are shaped into that identity by history through the lens of several complex individuals, given the space to express their masculinity along with their vulnerability.


At its core are a cappella gospel hymns and spirituals that unite sparring classmates at the elite Charles R Drew prep school, showing how harmony can persist even amid discord.


Against an imposing swathe of red velvet curtain – indications of class-room, dormitory and shower-area disclosed as required, the upright blazer sporting pupils must hold their own, boys posturing towards manhood. When they sing, a cappella, sounding the emotion, pain and stoicism of slave-era spirituals, they attain a defiant rapture and vulnerable rapport that transcends their confines and suggests a contention with a hostile wider world.


The play is structured as a string of sketches punctuated by debates and confrontations that reveal the group’s dynamic: the swagger of bullyboy Bobby (Alistair Nwachukwu) is laced with grief; Pharus is exasperated by the obstacles placed in front of him; dapper AJ (Jyuddah Jaymes) and aspiring pastor David (Michael Ahomka-Lindsay) are harbouring their own secrets; and Junior (Khalid Daley) scurries between them all. The rapport between the young actors is unforced and infectious.


The sweetness of the principal cast’s singing voices – attaining dulcet perfection in the hymn I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray, and that lonely lament Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child – is offset by the sour note that attends the choir leader Pharus (rising star Terique Jarrett). The character’s homosexuality attracts a mixture of bullying and confusion among the others.


Huge credit must go to musical director Femin Temowo. Credit also to voice coach, Aundrea Fudge and musical director Femin Temowo, as each one of the actors’ vocalisations is wondrous, whether in speech or song.


Jarrett brings terrific, unforced charm to Pharus’s journey towards acceptance but the whole evening brims with the lithe ebullience and charisma of talented youth.


Choir Boy feels like a poem inside a play: the plot bends to make way for imagery, music, glimpses at young hearts. Its questions and concerns are bigger than a story and its music touches the sublime.


Choir Boy is at Bristol Old Vic from October 12-November 11. Tickets are available at www.bristololdvic.org.uk.




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