Review – The Band, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 29th May 2018

The BandIt 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 1The 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 That dull, poorly written show has been replaced by a feelgood, funny and charming tale of five 16 year old girls in 1992, fantasising about meeting their boyband heroes at a gig, and their adult counterparts 25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.

The Band 3Of 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 Band in cupboardsThe 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.

Rachel and the boysBut 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 Boys Keep SingingPrague 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.

The Band 5Personally, 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. Message balloonsThey 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.

The Band 4Musically, 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.

Rachel and GeoffThere’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.

The Band 2I 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

Review – This Is My Family, Studio at the Crucible, Sheffield, 13th July 2013

This Is My FamilyThe last time we saw Calendar Girls (the play), I didn’t like it much. I liked the film and the original stage production at Chichester a lot, but by the time it had toured and toured and toured it had got a bit tired. However, fresh as a daisy and brightly emotional comes a new work from the pen of Tim Firth, This Is My Family – a rather pedestrian title for an intricately woven little musical of a “typical” family – bonkers Grandma, well-meaning and inept dad, overworked mum, promiscuous auntie, Goth teenage son, cheeky teenage daughter. It’s full of charm, comic insights and affectionate characterisation.

Evelyn HoskinsThe whole story is seen from the point of view of Nicky, the aforementioned cheeky daughter, who successfully enters a competition to win a family holiday anywhere in the world. Whilst everyone else finds it hard enough just to get through a normal day, Nicky imagines all sorts of holiday scenarios in every continent, but, being a typical 13 year old, ends up opting for the only place she can think of that the rest of the family will like – a place her parents used to take them when they were younger, and which she knew had a special meaning to them. However, when they get there it’s not quite as they remember it! It’s become a hideous campsite in a godforsaken corner of England where they “enjoy” typical English weather and arguments and bickerings ensue. But despite everything, the holiday brings the family together in a way that none of them could have foreseen. I won’t tell you how; suffice it to say that the second act is at times extremely moving and very tender – enough to bring a tiny tear to Mrs Chrisparkle’s eye.

Terence KeeleyIt’s a very effective set; the Studio doesn’t have a huge acting space, but this tall, shallow backdrop against one wall depicts the many rooms of a busy cluttered house, enabling scenes to take place in different rooms whilst not encroaching on the main acting area. The small band led by Caroline Humphris whack out some engaging tunes and quite complex musical sequences too where all the cast sing some multipart harmonies immensely skilfully.

Bill ChampionThe strength of the show is in its structure. On the one hand, it’s instantly appealing as we all recognise the characters. Even if you don’t personally have one of those six types in your family (and I bet you do), you will still personally know someone closely who fills the bill. The underlying message of the show is that there is nothing new under the sun. As the holiday develops, we realise that Steve and Yvonne had precisely the same kind of ritualistic communion experience that they have scorned Matt for (a Druidic wedding to the unseen Rachel), and that May and her “Ralphie” also had some similar arrangement long in the past. Each generation, whether they realise it or not, becomes the blueprint for the next generation, and if the current family is a bunch of crazies, no doubt so were the forebears. When Matt decides to keep the letter Steve wrote to Yvonne as a teenager, you can see that the future generations are likely to continue that family tradition. It’s a real affirmation of love.

Clare BurtAt the heart of the show is a great performance from Evelyn Hoskins as Nicky, a cheerful, precocious but never caricatured portrayal of a young teenage girl with lots to look forward to. She has a great stage presence, a charming voice and is, in the words of T S Eliot, “the still point in the turning world” (I don’t think I have yet recovered from seeing Cats last week). Alongside her is another excellent performance from Terence Keeley as her older brother Matt, who has the mumbling speech of a disrespectful teenager to a tee, is a frankly terrifying Goth, is very convincing in striding the gap between being a stupid boy and nearly a man; and who absolutely comes into his own at the end as he matures into a proper university student. He has a great singing voice, terrific comic timing and I think he could become A Name To Watch For.

Rachel LumbergBill Champion plays Steve, the much criticised, helpful and wannabe practical dad who is never happier than when making things, despite a total lack of skill, and much to the dismay of his family. Their lives are littered with the evidence of his hopeless attempts – an old bath becomes a spa, night vision head torches are constructed out of old bike lamps; fortunately, Matt puts his foot down early enough to prevent Steve from destroying his new university rooms. It’s a great performance of humour tinged with some pathos. Clare Burt makes an excellent Yvonne, the mother torn between practicality and romantic ideals, and Rachel Lumberg, last seen here in the Full Monty, gives a brilliantly funny performance as Yvonne’s slightly more wayward sister with a new man for every occasion.

Sian PhillipsLast, and certainly not least, comes a superbly controlled performance from Sian Phillips as May, Steve’s mother, which shows a decline into dementia in a most affectionate and gentle way. Losses of memory, misunderstandings and the occasionally bizarre act are contrasted with some insightful speeches of great wit and understanding too. I’ve seen Sian Phillips in many productions over the years (going back to Pal Joey in 1980) and she still has a marvellous presence and gives a great performance. She hasn’t lost her singing voice either.

It’s a reflective, feel good show, which can make you both laugh and cry, and you certainly come away from the theatre feeling a little bit wiser about what makes us all tick. It really ought to have a life after this short Sheffield run!

Review – The Full Monty, Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, 9th February 2013

The Full MontyWhen we heard that Daniel Evans was to direct a play version of The Full Monty, in its spiritual hometown of Sheffield, it sounded like a must-see. It would be full of authentic northern grit, and maybe even carry an additional significance with a local audience. The original film is surely one of the best British movies of the late 20th century, with its combination of farcically funny and sad situations, and with some memorable performances; the kind of film only the Brits can do.

Simon Beaufoy has reshaped his original story for the stage and it transfers from projection to proscenium extremely well. Live theatre for me always has an edge over cinema anyway, and the stage version does drive home the harshness of the reality of those 1980s job losses, and also the resulting tension within some of the characters’ relationships. It also makes the prospect of the final stage show – in the flesh – something of an over-stimulation for certain members of the audience, of which more later.

Kenny DoughtyThe opening scene is superbly theatrical, as Gaz, his mate Dave and his son Nathan break in to the old factory, for old time’s sake and maybe to nick a girder if they can. There’s no gentle introduction to the action – it’s all sudden harsh lights, sound effects and the starkly unsentimental sight of disused machinery and broken dreams. It’s also very funny, right from the start, and the characters are brilliantly written so that they develop in a natural, self-discovering way. I’m sure you know the story but just in case – in brief, it’s the late 80s and Mrs Thatcher is seen to be to blame for the loss of all the traditional jobs, and we meet a few ex-colleagues at the old factory no longer able to hold their heads up, support their families or keep on the straight and narrow. One night they are shocked to see that the Chippendales are putting on a local show and all the women from near Travis Caddyand far are paying decent cash to flock to them and see their erotic cavorting. Ambitious if nothing else, Gaz reckons he and his mates could put on a similar show, and get some quick cash as a result. But whereas the Chippendales obviously don’t go any further than the final thong – being nothing if not tasteful – the local guys trump their ace by deciding to go “the full monty”. Will they have the nerve? Will they bottle out? The final outcome is in doubt until the last few minutes, and the film famously ends on that frozen tableau of the guys flinging their hats off (the ones Tom Jones said they could leave on) into the air, seen from behind, to the obvious delight of the onlooking ladies. The expectation of how the stage version will recreate that image is a driving force that keeps the energy high, both on, but mainly off the stage.

Roger MorlidgeDaniel Evans has obviously crafted a great team out of the cast, and the six guys who do the strip show have to be counted as amongst the bravest men on stage at the moment. Everything is subjective of course, I would say that at least four of them couldn’t be described as Adonises. But that is part of the whole essence of the play. These are just ordinary guys trying to make their way in the world. They’re not South Yorkshire’s Next New Model. Not being rude here, but you could describe some of them as the fat one, the scrawny one, the unfit one, and the old one. A very positive effect I got from the play was that, if any of them could do something like this, then why couldn’t I? Please don’t be alarmed – I’m not going to go the “full monty” for anyone. But I was surprised at how I did feel a confidence-boost from that aspect of the production.

Rachel LumbergGaz, the central “loveable rogue” character, is played by Kenny Doughty and he is excellent. It’s a very confident physical performance, like when he’s teetering on the edge of the unbalanced girder, and his entrance in the final scene is impressively acrobatic. The character thinks he’s God’s Gift but his rather useless vanity and unerring ability to get things wrong becomes quite endearing. But he’s also a very convincing ringleader and Mr Doughty makes all these aspects come alive. His interaction with Nathan is also very realistic and moving. In the show we saw Nathan was played by (I think) Travis Caddy and it was an extraordinarily confident and mature performance for a thirteen-year-old. The other main character is Gaz’s mate Dave, played by Roger Morlidge, Simon Rousewho has fallen into a kind of depression since the factory closed, showing no interest in his wife and constantly comfort eating. This is another very good performance, as he reveals increasing glimpses of the character’s internal agonies as the storyline proceeds – not just in his anxiety about performing the strip but also with his marriage and his appearance. There’s an ostensibly funny, but actually very sad scene involving his use of a roll of Clingfilm, which actually made me catch my breath in sympathy. His scenes with his wife Jean, Rachel Lumberg, are also really effective. Jean’s bubbly personality that we see early in the play provides a strong juxtaposition with Dave’s newly morose nature which sparks off some excellent scenes together. We also loved Miss Lumberg’s interaction with the bust of Mrs Thatcher.

Tracy BrabinThere’s another superb performance from Simon Rouse as the ex-foreman Gerald, trying to maintain both his expensive wife and his professional superiority over the other guys against all the odds. The gradual sense of inevitability and disappointment that inhabits his expressions is great. At the same time he brings a very dour humour to the role and we both thought he was brilliant. There’s an extraordinarily emotionally charged scene between him and his wife played by Tracy Brabin near the end of the play, and you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife. The silence he held in that conversation would have made Pinter proud. I also thought Craig Gazey, as Lomper, gave a terrific performance as the woebegone loner, almost simple in his speech pattern, but absolutely convincing. His is probably the character that makes the biggest “journey” in the play – and his growing confidence is both life enhancing and funny. He also turns in some of the best comedy too. Sadly, we did think a couple of the performers were rather wooden; one actor and one actress just didn’t seem to have found the voices of their characters yet, and they sounded tentative and uncertain. However, it was still a preview performance, so hopefully these will improve in time.

I was surprised that, from our position in Row G of the stalls, you could clearly see a side door in the wings through which stagehands, ensemble actors and main cast members would enter during scenes and then stand behind a piece of scenery until they were required to come on and do whatever they had to do. It was quite distracting and took away from the magic of the theatre. However, as far as a distraction was concerned, this was nothing in comparison to the behaviour of some members of the audience.

Craig GazeyThe six brave men do indeed bare all at the end in a very clever combination of light and shade which means you may or may not see them in full, depending on your angle to the stage. You may think I’m concentrating a little unhealthily on “the final view” but, given that roughly half of our audience appeared to be tanked up groups of women behaving as though they were at a strip show it’s probably important information. Now whilst I am no prude or killjoy, and I’m well aware that the whole structure of the play is to build an atmosphere and whip up a bit of a frenzy for the final scene, unfortunately the loud, irritating and uninhibited behaviour got going within the first few minutes of the play starting. In fact, many people didn’t seem to bother to stop talking when the play began and it was a good minute or so before they realised people were talking on stage. It was as though some sectors of the audience were simply there for a strip show and they expected it to start at the beginning. This uninhibited behaviour included people calling out from various parts of the audience as though they were joining in with the on-stage characters, with the result that some of the lines were not audible. On some occasions it was amazing that the actors were actually able to carry on through the script. There’s a scene roughly halfway through where the guys decide they’re going to have to strip down to underpants because, after all, it’s going to have to happen at some point. You should have heard the baying shrieks of female sexual excitement during this scene. Honestly, you saw nothing that you wouldn’t see at a swimming pool or a beach, but the over-reaction of these ladies – fuelled by alcohol to a large extent – was an embarrassment, not only to my mind, but Mrs C also cringed at the behaviour of members of her sex.

Sidney ColeStating the obvious, if this had been a crowd of men on a boys’ night out shouting “get ‘em off” at ladies in underwear, the police would quite rightly have been called. I know that if you were to challenge the loud women they would defend themselves with “it’s just a bit of fun”; but that was the excuse men used to make in the old days and which women knew was unacceptable. Somewhere along the line, the whole ladette culture has invaded the theatre and it really is not to its credit. Mind you, there were clearly grannies and great-grannies also involved in the bad behaviour, so you could hardly call them ladettes. Whilst we were there we saw a member of the audience complaining to an usher about the women further along his row; I think this would have included the lady who took every opportunity to clap her hands above her head whilst still just about holding on to her beer glass.Kieran O'Brien Mrs C saw another woman get up, push past some other people in her row and tell the beer glass lady to calm down. This is during a play! I believe that those theatres who are hosting this play during its forthcoming tour will need to keep a really close eye on their auditoriums and be brave enough to eject any theatregoers whose behaviour goes too far. This bad behaviour certainly ruined our enjoyment of the show – not completely, but certainly in part – and I think it rather pours scorn on the alleged sincerity of the creative team to recreate the authentic grittiness of the story in its hometown. I’m sorry, but to most of the audience it’s not so much about cheering the guys on in their struggle against adversity, it’s more about seeing as much c**k as possible; hence my complete admiration for the six actors.

So I came away from the show with very mixed emotions. There are some excellent performances and the authenticity of the set is stunning. It’s very funny, and in many ways heart-warming; but I despair of my fellow theatregoers! I felt like I should have gone to a pole-dancing club afterwards to regain a bit of self-respect.