The Choir of Man ★★★☆☆

The Choir of Man may just be the world’s most cheerful public house performance. The smell of beer, the banter between mates, and everyone’s sudden inclination to burst into song—what’s not to love?

Conceived by Andrew Kay and helmed by the canny direction of Nic Doodson, The Choir of Man takes us into the heart of a classic English pub, a setting many of us yearn for but seldom find in our modern, digitised age. Imagine the robustness of the local pub’s chat, the magnetism of pub games, and add a sprinkle of spontaneous musical outbursts. Now you’re starting to get the picture.

But before you start thinking this is a mere jaunt into British culture, be warned: the story travels the full emotional gamut. From cheeky banter to poignant reflections on modern society, it’s a roller-coaster of a narrative that goes beyond your average karaoke night at the pub.

Michael Hamway, the charismatic frontman, dons the mantle of ‘The Poet’, guiding us through the lives of his fellow pub-goers. Yet, while the initial laddish nicknames – from ‘The Hardman’ to ‘The Joker’ – bring a hint of playful machismo to the table, they’re discarded as easily as last night’s empty pint glasses. It’s also pointless. Halfway through the show is an incredibly poignant 10 minute segment where Hamway talks about each of the actor’s personal backstories, using their name, place of birth, and describing key events from their childhood and adolescence – all in rhyme, and backed by evocative guitar strumming. I defy you not to cry.

Beyond the beverages and snacks, the show dives into audience inclusion. The serenading of women, and a man plucked from the audience, showcases a playful, yet intimate connection. Such moments of spontaneity are a double-edged sword. Done right, they endear the performers to the crowd, making the narrative feel personalized and genuine. Done wrong, they can feel staged or awkward. Yet the interactions add charm and a dash of unpredictability to the performance.

First on the song list is the Guns ‘n Roses classic, “Welcome To The Jungle.” Now, while no one expects Axl Rose’s growl from our pub crew, the rendition lacks that raw energy one associates with the original. Instead, it sounds more like a group of jovial pals enjoying a weekend jam session. Good for them, but a tad underwhelming for the audience.

Paul Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” is treated with more justice. It’s the kind of song that feels right at home in this setting. The harmonies, combined with the warm lighting, creates a soft, nostalgic ambiance. There’s a palpable emotion in the air, a sense of community that makes this rendition a standout.

Shifting gears from the light-hearted to the deeply emotional, Vandross’ heartbreaking ode to fatherly love was both a surprise and a revelation. “Dance With My Father” is a track that demands vulnerability and a deep connection with personal loss. The show’s heartfelt rendition was a tribute not just to the lyrics but to the universality of the sentiments expressed. There was a quiet strength in the performance, a poignant longing that struck a chord with the audience. The simple staging during this number—dim lights, minimal movement—allowed the vocals to shine and take center stage, making it one of the evening’s most memorable moments.

But the real show-stealer is The Piña Colada Song. A cheeky choice for any ensemble, the vibe of is a laid-back, tropical breezy day. The track has a quirky challenge to it; the tune demands an atmosphere of mischief coupled with a feel-good aura. In The Choir of Man, the rendition was invigorating. The additions of the trumpet, piccolo, and guitar were delightful touches, adding layers to what could easily have been a straightforward cover. The performance captured the playful essence of the original, and one could practically smell the pineapple and coconut in the air.

Doodson’s direction is largely commendable. He manages to pull together disparate characters and storylines, weaving a narrative that’s both entertaining and thought-provoking. The discussions around male mental health and societal change are particularly resonant. They offer a glimpse into the challenges faced by modern men and the sanctuaries they seek. But there is a lack of character development, leaving one with a sense of incompletion.

The Choir of Man is a refreshing take on a jukebox muscial, a musical roller-coaster that oscillates between euphoric highs and poignant lows. It’s a celebration of camaraderie, of shared moments and memories, and the sanctuary of the local pub. While it might not be a pitch-perfect performance, it’s undoubtedly a heartwarming experience. Just maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll leave with more than just a song in your heart—perhaps a pint or packet of crisps to boot!

Now playing in the Arts Theatre until February 2024.