Currently, Ben Norris is making his West End debut at the Arts Theatre performing in The Choir of Man, and the show is booking until 3rd April 2022 after it was extended due to popular demand. Ben has been involved with The Choir of Man since opening in Edinburgh in 2017 and was part of the production at London Wonderground and in Australia. Also having a career in radio, Ben is in the cast of the BBC Radio 4 drama The Archers playing the role of Ben Archer, and, alongside performing, he is a successful poet. Chatting to us, Ben tells us about performing in The Choir of Man, making his West End debut at the Arts Theatre and playing Ben Archer in The Archers on BBC Radio 4.
Can you tell us about The Choir of Man and how have the shows been going so far at the Arts Theatre?
The Choir of Man is difficult to categorise – it’s a show full of songs that people know and love from across a range of genres and decades, which takes place in a setting that many of us know and love too: the pub. It isn’t a musical in the traditional sense, because it doesn’t really have a story, but it isn’t simply a concert either, because the audience are invited into the world of the pub, and to meet the resident pub choir, made up of a cast of regulars who are recognisable figures in many groups of friends. We are playing versions of ourselves, but in many cases slightly heightened ones. Alongside the music, the show explores themes of community and male mental health. So I would describe it as a pub gig like no other!
It’s been going brilliantly. Like all live arts and entertainment at the moment, we have had to navigate the various challenges of the new COVID variant, and so some of the interactive elements of the show are having to shift back and forth, but whatever version of the show we do, it is immensely joyous to be a part of, for us on stage and for the audience too, I think. For many people, this is their first time back at the theatre since the pandemic began, and this feels like the perfect show to do it with; it’s all about gathering together, celebrating what it means to be able to meet up and sing in the same room, share a pint with an old friend and make some new friends while you’re at it.
The Arts is a wonderful venue for The Choir of Man – it’s intimate, it’s cosy, it’s a little bit ramshackle in places (I say that with love!), and those are all things we tend to associate with our favourite pubs. The design team of Oli Townsend and Verity Sadler have done a superb job at making the whole auditorium feel like it’s part of the pub, so the rustic wood panels and other pub paraphernalia extend out from the stage giving the whole place that charming, spit-and-sawdust feel.
How is it making your West End debut with the show?
Amazing. A dream come true. It’s cheesy, and a huge cliché, but coming up from the tube or cycling round the corner onto Great Newport Street and seeing the name of the show up in lights and everyone’s picture and name up there too – that’s what you fantasise about when you’re first getting into theatre as a young person, when you’re training and putting in the hard yards with auditions and self-tapes etc, when you’re struggling to find work and juggling several survival jobs. Of course, it’s still bloody hard work and it’s not all rainbows and cupcakes, cocktails and autographs, but it’s important to take stock and recognise what it means to have got here, and what a privilege it is to be able to do this for a living. And I couldn’t have wished to make my debut alongside a nicer group of guys, most of whom are making their debuts too. It’s an adventure for us all.
Is there anything you enjoy most about being in the cast?
I mean, there’s loads. But the thing that comes to mind straightaway is just how much I love singing in nine-part harmony with all these talented humans; it’s such a good feeling. The arrangements are beautiful, everyone is such a generous performer and a supportive person, you feel very connected to the rest of the group, and all while making (we hope!) a pretty good sound.
Why would you recommend booking tickets to see the show and who do you think it will appeal to?
I think there truly is something for everyone. Whatever your taste in music, there will be tunes in here that you love, and beyond that we try to create a welcoming atmosphere that makes it feel like somewhere you’ve been before, even when it’s your very first time. It’s such a feel-good show, unapologetically entertaining, and we give out free pints. But it’s not just something for the adults. Families can come and enjoy the show too. It’s a pub for everyone.
Having been involved with The Choir of Man since 2017 in Edinburgh, what originally drew you to the show?
My aforementioned love of close harmony singing (it releases some damn good chemicals into the body, my god!), combined with an interest in exploring masculinity and male mental health. I’ve made work as a solo artist exploring these themes previously, so the opportunity to bring them to a wider audience within the context of what is ostensibly a very different type of show was very exciting.
How was your experience on the previous runs at London Wonderground, Australia and Edinburgh and what are some of your stand-out highlights?
All very different, and very different venues. The thing that unifies them is the sheer joy that the show can inspire in people, which never fails to take me by surprise. The noise that the audience can sometimes make at the end of a performance is breathtaking. I knew when we first started making the show that people were going to enjoy it, but I had no idea it would tap into something this deep in people, which has only been heightened by the last 18 months and the fact we haven’t been able to gather at all.
On a very different, much more flippant note, one specific moment I’ll always remember is from Adelaide Fringe in 2018, when a huge insect flew directly into one of the cast’s mouths just as we all breathed in to start singing Chandelier by Sia. He panicked and started trying to swat it away (and this thing was massive; proper Australian creepy crawly!) and everyone was falling about laughing, on stage and in the audience, but nobody thought to stop the song and start again, so the corpse of the song was still being dragged along underneath the hilarity as if we thought no one would notice if we just carried on.
Do you have any favourite stage or screen shows to watch?
I don’t know where to start, there’s so much I love. But things that spring immediately to mind are Come From Away, I think it’s extraordinary and it makes me weep every time, and then in terms of screen things I’m currently enjoying, Succession, Stath Lets Flats, Big Mouth, Maid, Sex Education, to name a few.
What is Ben Archer like to play in The Archers and can you say about the character?
He’s very fun. He’s ten years younger than me, so I get to relive all the ritual humiliations and hopes and first times of adolescence all over again a decade later, through him. He’s a very sweet and caring person, underneath some of his teenage ‘antics’, and I really enjoy the genuine, warm connection he has with some of the other characters, particularly the older ones. He’s just decided he wants to be a nurse, inspired in part by the pandemic, and I think that is a really good vocation for him. I’m excited to see where his life takes him!
Do you remember finding out you’d booked the role and what it was like on your first day joining the cast?
Yes, I got the call when I was on a train to Mansfield to do a poetry reading at the Old Library there. I was over the moon, and my initial thought was how excited I was to tell my mum. This was bigger news to her than if I had booked a big Hollywood blockbuster, because she’s a huge fan of the show.
I can’t remember loads about my first day beyond how welcoming and kind everybody was, and how much fun it was to record my first scene, which was Ben and Ruairi (his best friend in the show, played by the brilliant Arthur Hughes) joyriding in Ben’s dad’s Land Rover that they had ‘borrowed’ for the evening. They were 16 and 15 respectively. Naughty boys. Needless to say they were instantly caught. It was all a bit of a whirlwind, both the scene itself and the experience of recording it.
How is it working on the BBC Radio 4 show?
A great privilege. Also a great freedom, because it’s radio so you don’t have to give your whole life to a single programme like you might do if you’re attached to a TV soap for many years; they can often record around your other work commitments, like they are doing with The Choir of Man at the moment. So it’s wonderful. And I finally have an answer to that perennial hairdresser question: ‘Done anything I’ve heard of?’. ‘Why yes, I have!’.
Can you say about some of your other stage and radio work you’ve been involved with over the years?
I’ve made all sorts of things, one man shows, poetry and spoken word work, radio plays, some with songs alongside Kinks frontman Ray Davies, audiobooks. I’ve been very lucky. There’s a lot more I want to do of course, and I have a few scripts I’m working on at the moment as a writer that I really hope to get off the ground, but the journey so far has been a fantastic one, for which I’m hugely grateful.
Where does your love of poetry and performing come from and how did you start?
I started at school, where I was looking for a way to continue being the centre of attention without getting excluded. I was very poorly behaved for basically all of primary school and the first few years of secondary, I don’t know why, and genuinely was quite close to getting kicked out, but then the drama department was founded when I was in Year 9 (we hadn’t had one until then) and these two brilliant women came along and changed everything for me. I think they must have seen something in me, a desire to play and to be bold or loud or silly, or whatever it was, which had previously manifested in me being an insufferable school kid, but which they managed to slowly turn into something else. Then as soon as I got the bug, that was it: I did school musicals, youth theatre outside of school at Nottingham Playhouse, National Youth Theatre and National Youth Music Theatre. I was so hungry for it!
Poetry came a little later, as I moved into my late teens and started to need a change of pace beyond the non-stop energy that had characterised my life up to that point, and also, as you approach adulthood and start to formulate bigger questions about life, the universe and everything, poetry became a brilliant outlet for asking those questions and for reflection. When I first started writing it, I did it in secret, and I told myself I was writing song lyrics, because they are the acceptable face of poetry for most teenage boys, but then when I got to uni and met people who had been doing the same thing, I finally started sharing it with people, reading it aloud at open mic nights, and admitting that I was a poet!
Performing on stage, particularly in something as big and as raucous as The Choir of Man, is wonderful, but it’s a very public act, a very extrovert energy. Poetry is where I go with my introvert energy, when I want to be quiet and calm and private, as both a writer and a reader. Even when you share a poem with the world, there’s still something very private about it, more so than with theatre, especially if the poem is on the page. All you are in control of is how the language is presented on the page, but after that it belongs to the reader. When you perform something, it still belongs to the audience, of course, but you are their conduit and you make a lot of decisions about the material on their behalf. Reading is purer than that.
I love them both equally and couldn’t do without either in my life.
What do you enjoy doing away from your career?
I really like running. Long, muddy runs.
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