The Choir of Man review – Arts Theatre, London ★☆☆☆☆

Photo: The Other Richard

The Choir of Man continues its unlikely life at the Arts Theatre almost seven years after it debuted at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Created by Nic Doodson and Andrew Kay, and featuring monologues written by Ben Norris, the production isn’t so much a musical (even on jukebox musical terms) than a collection of songs tied together with the flimsiest of storylines. The premise is that we are in ‘the best pub in the world,’ The Jungle (presumably so the cast can sing Guns n Roses’ Welcome to the Jungle), with some of the locals who frequent it – quite literally, you can buy a token at the box office that allows you access to the stage for a pint from the working bar before the show starts.

Poet (played tonight by swing performer Sam Ebenezer) acts as our guide through the characters you meet in a pub, he being one with his poetic view of what a pub means – or at least should mean. It somewhat leans into the fact that these people are stereotypes, with the characters named after their respective traits; there’s Poet, Hardman (Adam Bayjou), Bore (Andrew J Carter), Romantic (played by swing James Hudson), Joker (Daniel Harnett)… you get the idea. Even the barman is just called Barman (played by the stand-out performer of the evening, Mark Irwin).

Photo: The Other Richard

Each character has their moment and solo in the stoplight as the cast work through hits like Somebody To Love, Escape (The Pina Colada Song), 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), Chandelier and Hello (Adele, not Lionel). The songs are well performed by the accomplished cast, backed by a tight four-piece live band. There’s also plenty of audience participation, plenty of it cringey – and some lucky audience members may find themselves leaving with a beer mat or bag of crisps, depending on how good the cast’s aim is on the night (I bagsied cheese and onion).

But as good as the music is, and setting audience participation woes aside, what of the story? Tied together with the thinnest of threads, at a certain point early in the show, you start to wonder what the point of the narrative even is – and as it progresses, the cliches become increasingly tired and worn with each spoken interlude. The progressive nature of this pub (its inclusive nature is repeatedly highlighted) is undermined by the total absence of any women from the cast (the title was probably a clue) – and you fear what stereotypical name they might be tagged with given the masculine, testosterone-heavy environment if they were to be included.

Photo: The Other Richard

There’s clearly, an audience for the show – one that is, ironically, a stereotype (think hen parties and Christmas night outs) – but when you strip it right back, the only thing just about keeping The Choir of Man together during its 90-minute running time is good songs written by somebody else. But with its sickly sweet and hypocritical narrative, even they are hard to enjoy.

The Choir of Man is currently booking to 29 September 2024

Note: this is a review of a performance in January 2024