Festive fun with Men Only Aloud

Only Men Aloud have lots to sing about after their classical chart-topping album and sell-out tours. Now the choir are returning to Norwich with a very special Christmas show. STEVEN RUSSELL reports.

Only Men Aloud have lots to sing about after their classical chart-topping album and sell-out tours. Now the choir are returning to Norwich with a very special Christmas show. STEVEN RUSSELL reports.

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Life's been a whirlwind for Only Men Aloud since they won the BBC's Last Choir Standing competition in the summer of 2008. The choir had already worked with stars such as Katherine Jenkins, Bryn Terfel and Aled Jones - and sang at the opening weekend of the Wales Millennium Centre five-years ago - but their world started spinning at warp factor following their TV triumph.

A five-record deal followed with Universal Music and an album was out comfortably before the first advent calendar window was opened.

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The lads sang at The Royal Variety Performance, and last spring enjoyed a complete sell-out on their first UK tour.

More time in the studio this year saw a second album, Band of Brothers, released in October and bubbling to the top of the classical charts. Now they're undertaking a Christmas tour that wends its way to the Theatre Royal this Sunday.

Choir founder Tim Rhys-Evans said: 'The show will have a distinctly festive feel. All of our concerts follow like a theatrical production and it will be a hugely entertaining evening, we hope.'

The show will be a selection of festive Christmas repertoire plus a mixture of songs from the first and second albums, and a few firm favourites. Tim said songs from the choir's second album Band of Brothers will feature in the repertoire.

Traditional carols such as Silent Night and O Come All Ye Faithful will be performed alongside songs such as Have Youself A Merry Little Christmas during the show. 'It is going to be camp, Christmassy and lots of fun underpinned by some great singing,' promises Tim.

The past 18-months have certainly been a rollercoaster ride for the choir members. Rare days 'off' are now filled with engagements such as singing during the BBC Children in Need jamboree and joining Cerys Matthews and Mark Knopfler for the Royal British Legion's Silence in the Square event.

That Remembrance Day gathering in Trafalgar Square required a 4.30am start from Cardiff, but the choir didn't mind. 'It's a great event for us to do,' says bass Andy Mulligan. 'It does feel like a whirl. When you look back at the amount of things we've done, it's hard to imagine it's only been a year.

'There are moments when you feel absolutely shattered. But generally it's just incredibly exciting to have the opportunity to sing in the choir. I've been in it for 10-years and always enjoyed it, but to get the chance to do it at such a high level is wonderful. We get to a venue and it's quite hard work and it's tiring, but it all balances out, really. Definitely better than a nine-to-five job!'

Only Men Aloud's success has prompted lifestyle changes, with quite a few guys reducing the time spent at their day-job. Andy, a peripatetic guitar teacher, is among them. He's cut his hours - in theory.

'Basically, with the touring, I think we've got four days off in December, so I'm a part-time teacher now! My schools have been very understanding, thankfully, and let me take a bit of down-time. I teach guitar in three schools at the moment. On my days off in the tour I'm going into schools and doing their carol concerts and that sort of thing. It's going to be a busy December for me!' he laughs.

Isn't pop-star fame a strange thing for a choir? 'For me, the choir is definitely not about fame,' says Andy. 'It's all about the fact we can keep singing to a higher level, to a more professional level, and to more people. I think the best acts in music are ones who focus on that and not on fame.'

Clinching a five-album deal must have been lovely, but is there also a pressure to make each one better than the last? 'Hmmh, I suppose that's true. I hadn't thought of that. I think the first album had to be 'about the show'. The second is, I think, very much the album we'd have made if we could have made one that was just about the choir. Scarboro' Fair, I think we've sung that arrangement now since the start of the choir, actually. There's a Welsh hymn called Gwahoddiad on there, which again we've sung since the very start. And then there's some stuff that's been arranged literally a month before the recording! It's a real snapshot of the choir over the years.'

He says of the boys' repertoire: 'I think the good thing about it is we've got lots of music on the tour that we perform live and which goes down well but which we haven't yet recorded; so there's definitely a good, deep well of music there for us to draw from.

'The Welsh music - even for me, who wasn't born in Wales and is originally from Warrington - is very important to us all because we've sung it for so long and it's the culture of male-voice singing.'

Tim Rhys-Evans has been keen to expand the range of the choir and he is particularly excited about a recording made with 80s pop icon Bonnie Tyler.

He says: 'We have recorded Total Eclipse Of The Heart. It starts with the boys then Bonnie comes crashing in. She sounds better than ever and it has been a joy to work with her.'

Tim has also wanted to bring choreography into the choir's performances. 'It's a funny thing. I've noticed this: that male-voice choirs often do choreography, whereas a mixed choir wouldn't,' says Andy. 'A lot of male choirs often do arrangements of pop songs or theatre, and I think that if you do a piece that's from a show it's very hard not to put in some choreography - because if you went to a West End show you'd see it.

'We've been doing it since about 2004, the choreography. It's often when a new routine starts, and we're told 'Right, you've got to do this here, and this,' that a bit of 'two left feet' comes into play! But we work hard at it and usually get there in the end.'

Tim was also very keen on perpetuating the tradition of male-voice singing. 'We noticed a lot of the choirs were getting older every year and it was very hard to get anybody under the age of about 30 involved, unfortunately,' explains Andy. 'So Tim's idea was to start a choir that was generally people of a younger age and try to do it in a bit of a different way, really - which I think he's done really well.'

Is that strategy reflected in the audience? Does the choir draw young men who appreciate a slightly funkier and livelier approach?

'I think our audience has definite layers of people. You get those who have come to see a traditional choir; we get a lot of people in Wales who follow male-voice choirs and almost thank us for doing what we do. We get quite a lot of young people, too, which is great to see.

'I've noticed in schools that a lot of children are keener to sing - I think generally because of Last Choir Standing, as a series, making singing quite cool again,'

t Only Men Aloud will perform at Norwich Theatre Royal on December 6, �29.50-�6, 01603 630000, www.theatretroyalnorwich.co.uk