REVIEW: The Choir of Man (The Arts Theatre)

The Jungle is not your average boozer. For a start, it’s located on the stage of London’s Arts Theatre and serves up tap dancing to accompany beer on tap. It’s also home to a close-knit group of men who gather together every night to drink, share their stories and sing. Together they are The Choir of Man. First performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe five years ago, this Olivier-nominated musical sensation has been entertaining audiences around the world and is now back for a second season in the West End. Having missed it the first time round, we were very excited to be invited to the press night this week.

The Choir of Man is also far from your average male voice choir. Each with their own style (and a name that denotes a somewhat cardboard cutout backstory such as ‘the Hardman’ and ‘the Pub Bore’), the group perform pop songs by an eclectic range of artists from Paul Simon to Sia. There is no real narrative, although the musical numbers are loosely linked together with monologues written and performed by Ben Norris (‘The Poet’). These segments introduce each of the Jungle’s inhabitants and attempt to convince us that there is more to the gang than just lads, lads, lads. It’s a nice idea but this element of the show unfortunately feels a bit forced. Although there are some important messages about community (particularly post-Covid) and an attempt to open a conversation about toxic masculinity, they don’t quite sit quite right in a production which suggests that the pub is purely the domain of the man, with women either sung about in their absence or hauled out of the audience to be awkwardly serenaded on stage. (Top tip – don’t sit in an aisle seat if you don’t want to find yourself unexpectedly playing a starring role – although you may bag yourself a free beer in the process!) Meanwhile, modern men must be able to talk about their feelings but only over beer and pork scratchings. There’s no scope for sophisticated palates in this pub.

The Choir of Man, Performed at the Arts Theatre West End, 2022. Scenic Designer Oli Townsend; Costume Designer & Associate Scenic Designer Verity Sadler; Lighting Designer Richard Dinnen. Photo credit: The Other Richard

Cynicism aside, the music makes for an absolutely cracking evening at the pub as the boys crank out hit after hit, each bringing its own fun surprises. Standout moments include Lemuel Knights (‘the Barman’) performing Rubert Holmes’ ‘Escape (The Piña Colada Song)’ and a rendition of the Proclaimers’ ‘500 Miles’ from Michael Baxter (‘the Maestro’) that has the entire audience joining in. Jordan Oliver (‘the Handyman’) also affirms our long-held belief that that there is no musical that can’t be improved by the inclusion of a tap number, as he hops (beer pun intended!) and shuffles across the (literal) bar. The choreography (from Movement Director and Choreographer Freddie Huddleston and Associate Movement Director and Choreographer Rachel Chapman) is another highlight of this fun production, and includes some pretty nifty glassography (which we’re pretty sure is the technical term for bashing plastic beer glasses about in time to music). The live band who sit high above the stage are fantastic, especially violinist Darius Luke Thompson, who also gets involved in the on-stage action. And as if that wasn’t enough, many of the versatile stage performers demonstrate that they have more than just one string to their bow, showcasing an array of instrumental skills to go with the singing and dancing. In the ridiculously talented Jordan Oliver’s case, this means raising the bar by playing the trumpet while tap dancing!

The Choir of Man, Performed at the Arts Theatre West End, 2022. Scenic Designer Oli Townsend; Costume Designer & Associate Scenic Designer Verity Sadler; Lighting Designer Richard Dinnen. Photo credit: The Other Richard

The pre-show atmosphere is very much part of the experience so it’s worth getting there early before things get too crowded. Of course, this is not an entirely novel idea and many will have fond memories of (and souvenir cups from) Once, which saw the stage of the Phoenix Theatre transformed into a working bar. Unlike at Once, you need to be a beer drinker to get the full Choir of Man experience as there are no other options available (alcoholic or otherwise). This doesn’t feel hugely inclusive towards non-drinkers (or anyone who doesn’t like lager) and may be disappointing to any under 18s in the audience. (Ten year old Crotchet was quite happy taking selfies on stage but Mummy did have to take one for the team and get herself a pint of lager for the first time in years!) Admittedly this is probably not the obvious show to take the kids to but it is officially recommended for ages 6+. We would caution against taking children that young, particularly if you don’t want them exposed to a (small amount of) swearing and sexual references or to see a song performed at a urinal! Crotchet found a lot of it very funny, and loved the tap dancing as always, but did start to disengage towards the end of the 90 minutes. To be fair, the finale does go on a bit, rather like when you text your wife to let her know you’re just having a quick drink after work and then stick around for another three rounds before eventually leaving to catch the last train home!

Overall, The Choir of Man may not be the most profound piece of musical theatre we’ve ever seen but it’s most certainly one of the best nights we’ve had at the pub. It’s a real feel-good show with some fantastic performances which will be sure to leave you with a warm fuzzy feeling. Just go easy on the beer or you’ll wake up with a matching fuzzy head!

The Choir of Man opened at the Arts Theatre on 1 October 2022 and is currently booking until 12 February 2023. We received complimentary press tickets (and beer tokens – although the 10 year old did not use hers!) for the press performance on 13 October.