It was just over ten years ago that Mrs Chrisparkle and I went to see the Take That musical Never Forget at the Milton Keynes Theatre. Mrs C has always been a TT aficionado, and I’d always quite liked their songs, so we went along. The show was as dull as ditchwater, with a lousy book; and although the performances were good, the show never ignited until the last ten minutes, when the post-curtain call cast abandoned all the storyline pretences and just did a few songs as a Take That Tribute Act – and they were brilliant.
The Band – the new musical based on the songs of Take That, and whose creation TV audiences partly saw with the series Let It Shine to choose the boys who would be in the band – is almost the exact opposite of Never Forget. That dull, poorly written show has been replaced by a feelgood, funny and charming tale of five 16 year old girls in 1992, fantasising about meeting their boyband heroes at a gig, and their adult counterparts 25 years later. Rather than giving us a Take That tribute act, the five boys of Five to Five, the winning group on the TV show, simply become a typical boyband of their own. There’s no point trying to identify which of the guys is Gary, or Robbie, or Jason (or Mark, or Howard…. sorry, Mrs C’s enthusiasm has rubbed off on me a little) because they’re not presented that way. And that, in my humble opinion, is both a strength and a weakness of this new show. Strength – in that it allows the boys and the show to acquire their own unique identities. Weakness – well, if you’re expecting 2 and a half hours of Take That-ery, you’ll be disappointed.
Of course, the TV show is now fifteen months in the past, and we couldn’t for the life of us remember any of the winning competitors. All that original pizzazz of the show has gone into making pre-tour sales an enormous success – allegedly this is the biggest selling show in advance of press night ever – but not into making celebrities of the guys involved. I realised a few minutes before heading out to the theatre that, apart from knowing it had Take That music in it, I knew precious little about anything else to do with the show. The head of steam built up by the TV programme has long gone cold. As a result, the show, and especially the boys, have to win you over perhaps a little more than if this was just any old musical based on a pop group’s output (and let’s face it, there are plenty of those to choose from). And if you’re expecting a high impact start from the guys – well think again. The five boys don’t instantly hit the ground running with a perfect Take That tribute show – in fact, when they first come on stage they crawl out of various parts of young Rachel’s bedroom, giving me a slightly disturbing memory of Helen Reddy’s Angie Baby, if you’re old enough to remember that. That slowish start, not helped by some first night teething troubles, some murky sounds, underpowered microphones for the boys singing and a missed cue from the understudy playing the fifth member of the band, meant that I thought the first twenty minutes or so of the show was, shall we say, a bit scruffy around the edges.
But at some point, everything clicked into place and I ended up enjoying this way more than I expected. It’s actually a very well written and funny show, heavy on pathos but never maudlin, about middle-aged people coming to terms with who they are, especially in comparison with their hopes and their dreams when they were teenagers. It also plays very nicely on the potential double meanings of the word Band. It is, perhaps, not totally original in its concepts; there’s something of the Shirley Valentine about the character of Rachel, who always dreamed of being married but has never been walked down the aisle, even though she’s partnered up with the unimaginative but well-meaning Geoff. When she breaks free from his ideas of how to spend the Prague holiday that she won in a radio competition, and confesses she wants to go with her old schoolmates instead of him and their friends, he can’t grasp it. But she can, and the audience can, and when she turns up at the airport she gets a spontaneous round of applause for her character’s assertiveness. There’s also something of the Mamma Mia about the four forty-somethings behaving badly around Prague, to the sound of classic poptastic hits. There’s even a nod to Joe Orton with the unfortunate scandal of the damaged statue in Prague meeting the same fate as that of Winston Churchill in What The Butler Saw.
Personally, I found it unbelievable that the four friends had never been in contact since they were 16. Even as far back as the mid-1990s, there were millions of people subscribed to Friends Reunited. With all the juicy scandals in their past – you’ll have to watch the show to find out what they are – there’s no way that all could have been kept a secret from each other. But it is without question their bond that is the unifying structure of the show – and not the boyband, perhaps surprisingly. In fact, the boys only take centre stage on a few occasions. Most of the time, they represent their own musical earworm; appearing as flight attendants or ground crew; shop salesmen, bus passengers, or even the statues in a Prague fountain. They are background characters, reflecting the ever-present nature of your favourite group that lives in your head and every so often gives you an unexpected performance of their music. They are a benign, reassuring presence; but distinctly in the background, rather like an old-fashioned chorus in a musical. It’s vital for the structure of the show for the girls and the boys never to meet, for otherwise their imaginary presence in the girls’ lives would become real and all those fantasies would be shattered.
Musically, it’s a strong show. It’s fascinating to see how well the Take That songs blend into the story-telling; it’s a very natural mix, and surprising just how “show tunes” many of their songs are. John Donovan’s backing musicians provide a great sound and the cast – the younger girls, the older girls, and the boys, all sing really well – in fact, the ladies’ harmonies are pretty spectacular. A couple of the boys – AJ and Curtis – truly excel at dancing too. Hats off to Harry Brown for taking over from the indisposed Yazdan Qafouri as the fifth member of the group.
There’s something about Rachel Lumberg that makes you just love her on stage. We’ve seen her a couple of times in Sheffield in The Full Monty and This is My Family (also written by Tim Firth, I notice) and she never fails to delight. She has such a warm and honest onstage persona that you really feel she’s confiding just in you. It’s a beautiful performance and Tuesday night’s audience absolutely adored her. There’s also a wonderfully funny and emotional performance from Alison Fitzjohn as Claire, and spirited performances from Emily Joyce as Heather and Jayne McKenna as Zoe. Amongst the 16-year-old girls’ cast, Katy Clayton stands out with her funny and attitudinal performance as young Heather, and Rachelle Diedericks as the kind and tragic young Debbie. There are also some scene-stealing moments from Andy Williams (not THE Andy Williams) as Every Other Male Role which he tackles with a great sense of fun. But everyone turns in a great performance and helps make the show a success.
I had few expectations of this show – and was really very pleasantly surprised. There were plenty of TT fans in the audience, who all did the dance gestures along with the cast but it never became so immersive an experience that they forgot they were at the theatre. This is more than mere hen party fodder, more than just a piece of bubblegum pap; the show has interesting things to say about the nature of friendships, fandom, and learning how to let go of your past. A charming story beautifully told. The show has already been touring since last autumn and has almost another year still to go, so there are still plenty of opportunities to catch it. If you think you might like it, you almost certainly will. If you think you won’t, then you may be quite surprised. Worth a punt!
Production photos by Matt Crockett