“Do the boys have a song for a moment like this?”
Having a bit of fun with this one – there was actually 8 of us in attendance at new Take That musical The Band (with a boisterous Saturday evening crowd), for the occasion of celebrating my niece’s 13th birthday. And from ages 10 to (almost) 70, we all really enjoyed ourselves, so I put everyone to work to chip in with their favourite bits about the show, a la Smash Hits. Written by Tim Firth, what I found particularly pleasing was that The Band actually proves an engaging and entertaining piece of theatre, one that has clearly thought about the jukebox form and how it might be played with.
We open in 16-year-old Rachel’s bedroom in 1993, a time of Ceefax and Top of the Pops, of teenage dreams and life’s potential. But her parents are on the brink of divorce and so she retreats under the covers to listen to ‘the boys’, her favourite band who she is able to conjure up at a moment’s notice. It’s a nifty conceit, this internalised band, as it plays both into the fantasy element of being a devoted fan and provides a conduit for the bursting-into-song required of a musical, whether Rachel is using the music to drown out the harshness of the real world or lose herself in a reverie of hunky gladiators.
Firth’s book surrounds Rachel with her 4 closest friends, all equally into the band, but also follows them 25 years on, to see how those schoolgirl hopes and dreams have played out. And he nails the kind of ‘real life’ humour which has arguably become his shtick – so if you’re going to do a fat person joke, make it as funny as this one; don’t be afraid of being cheesy (look out for how the lyrics to ‘Babe’ are used) but underscore everything with real compassion. The result is a heartwarming hug of a plot – sure, it won’t be to everyone’s taste but when has that ever really been a problem?!
Kim Gavin and Jack Ryder’s production also balances the glossiness of the world of musical theatre with something akin to realism. So of course we get big production numbers (‘Relight My Fire’ is an eye-popping delight; ‘The Flood’ is also v well done) but at the same time, the older versions of the characters look like normal women with a range of body shapes – it may seem like a small thing but it is a quietly political move. Rachel Lumberg, Emily Joyce, Jayne McKenna and Alison Fitzjohn are all most entertaining as they interact together, particularly where Prague and planes are concerned and there’s something joyous about watching Fitzjohn seemingly have the time of her life.
As for ‘the boys’, the band Five To Five (put together on BBC reality show Let It Shine) acquit themselves well. Hired for their muscles (to put on display at regular intervals) and their muscle (they’re often responsible for shifting the components of Jon Bausor’s functional design around), I think I preferred them as Rachel’s internal group where they have a little more opportunity to show some personality, as opposed to the performances as the band themselves, where they have little choice but to recreate the moves that Take That are famed for and which the audience long to see.
I did have a couple of notes. I wish the show didn’t indulge in a variation on this particular trope (spoiler alert if you click on it!) though perversely, it did mean we got to see more of the excellent Rachel Diedericks. And the realities of a touring theatre design inevitably mean it doesn’t always match the staging grandeur of the Take That concerts it tries to ape. And the behaviour of a Saturday night audience in the mood for some participation was a little grating, particularly in the quiet moments.
But even then I find it hard to begrudge them that because The Band proved to be such a fun evening, regardless of the context. And if some are tempted to sneer for reasons of snobbery or whatever, it is worth remembering that the show is going to be encouraging people (and dare I say it, including a fair few non-regular theatregoers) to have such fun in theatres across the country and I can’t see how that is a bad thing. Could it be magic? It just might.