Tag Archives: Jack Ryder

Take This

THE BAND

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 1st May, 2018

 

Regular readers will know of my aversion to jukebox musicals and so it is with some trepidation that I approach this production.  An out-and-proud Take That fan from way back, I had seen some of the auditions for the titular band in a BBC talent programme, and that wasn’t enough to put me off!

Not, as the woman behind me expected, the story of Take That, this is instead the tale of Rachel and her schoolfriends.  The Band, a Take-Thattish quintet of handsome lads, form the soundtrack to their lives, and encapsulate their hopes and dreams.  Teen Rachel (Faye Christall) cranks up their music to drown out her parents’ quarrels and escape her problems – boy band as metaphor for heroin, perhaps!  When her best mate Debbie (Rachelle Diedericks) wins concert tickets, the group of girls set off on an adventure that changes their young lives.  The other members are sporty Claire (Sarah Kate Howarth), promiscuous extrovert Heather (Katy Clayton) and swotty Zoe (Lauren Jacobs).  We realise the show’s title refers not only to the omnipresent boyband but also to the rubber bracelets on which the girls swear undying friendship, in a kind of Blood Brothers move.

The boy band work as a kind of dispassionate Greek chorus, hardly ever off apart from costume changes – the songs don’t necessarily relate to the action or the characters – and it’s like a play with songs, until the characters start singing too and we’re launched back into musical theatre territory, although, even then, they sing because they want to, rather than to express emotion or character or to further the plot.  And it doesn’t matter.  The musical numbers are spectacularly staged – production values are high, indeed.  Relight My Fire, for example, turns the last bus home into a chariot pulled by the band in Greek helmets, while jets of flame leap from the footlights…

The story jumps 25 years and forty-something Rachel has won a competition to see the band’s reunion gig in Prague.  A reunion is on the cards and there is much humour and more than a little poignancy with the regard to the passage of time and the way life turns out.  Rachel Lumberg is the keystone of the story as grown-up Rachel – with her partner Jeff (Martin Miller) the script takes a John Godber turn, with the relationship strife and the planned trip abroad.  Jayne McKenna and Emily Joyce are good fun as the grown-up Zoe and Heather respectively, but it is the once-sporty Claire who steals the show and our hearts in a lovely portrayal by Alison Fitzjohn.  Andy Williams (not that one) crops up again and again in a range of roles, each of them humorous in an economical, throwaway style that demonstrates his versatility and comic timing.

Tim Firth’s script channels Victoria Wood with its down-to-earth North-Western bathos, and Willy Russell in its female empowerment.  There are plenty of laughs, more than a smattering of wit and a touching denouement that has me wiping my eye.

And the boyband?  Wow.  Selected for their vocal abilities, they also have to dance their socks (and in some cases their tops) off, in a dazzling and energetic display.  Kim Gavin’s choreography evokes the pop videos of Take That and the boys (AJ, Nick, Curtis, Yazdan and Sario) seem tireless in their efforts.  Very impressive.

Kim Gavin also directs, along with Jack Ryder, and they get the pace and feel of the piece just right, keeping us on the right side of sentimentality and teasing us with just enough nostalgia to set the scene while allowing this new story to have legs of its own.  This charming, warm-hearted piece blends down-to-earth humour with spectacular staging and it all fits together beautifully for a show you’ll Never Forget.

band

The boys in the Band (Photo: Matt Crockett)

 

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Comic Strip

THE FULL MONTY

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 14th November, 2016

 

The stage adaptation of the hit film is doing the rounds again and while we may feel familiar with it, we perhaps forget how brilliant it is.  Ostensibly – and undeniably – a comedy, Simon Beaufoy’s remarkable script is also a study of masculinity in an adverse economic climate.  The play is set against the backdrop of Thatcher’s Britain but guess what, many of the themes are all too pertinent today.  The emasculating effects of long-term unemployment, redundancy of the male, with women bringing home the bacon and, in a hilarious scene, even pissing standing up, makes the male characters feel obsolete – redundant personally as well as economically.  Relationships inevitably come under strain – one man can’t even bring himself to tell his wife he has lost his job, another faces losing access to his son… And Beaufoy also manages to mix in issues of body image and objectification – the men don’t like it now the roles are reversed.

Above all, the play remains very, very funny.  The audience is certainly up for it, whooping and cheering when lead actor Gary Lucy (Gaz) makes his first appearance.  Perhaps they have mistaken it for a Chippendales-type cabaret show but, thankfully, they immediately settle down to listen to the unfolding drama.  Yes, there are whoops and cheers still but these feel in support of the characters and their journey rather than plain old-fashioned catcalling of the actors.

Director Jack Ryder manages all the diverse elements of the script perfectly, timing the gags and surprises to maximum effect while giving the issues time to breathe.  The more sentimental moments, for example between Dave and his wife Jean, are handled with a light touch and are all the sweeter and more poignant for it.  Gary Lucy makes an affably laddish lead, even if his accent roams around the North West at times, while Kai Owen’s ever-dieting Dave is an excellent, down-to-earth foil for Gaz’s dreams and schemes.  Louis Emerick’s Horse balances physical humour (his audition piece is a scream) with quiet desperation – he has no alternative but to take part in the get-rich-quick project (In case you don’t know – where have you been? – the men get together to stage a strip show in order to make cash).  It’s not just the working class affected by unemployment: middle-class Gerald (the excellent Andrew Dunn) is co-opted to bring his Conservative Club choreography to the troupe.   And it’s not just straights, either.  Hard times affect all walks of society.  Chris Fountain ups the tottie factor as out-and-proud Guy, another facet of maleness Beaufoy holds up – Guy is neither camp nor delicate and his burgeoning relationship with shy, slow-witted Lomper (Anthony Lewis, in a layered characterisation) is underplayed to touching effect.  Yet one of the strongest performances of the night comes from the remarkable Felix Yates as Gaz’s nine-year-old son Nathan, clearly the grown-up in their relationship!  It’s not just the breadwinner that suffers when there is no bread to be won.

The strip-show finale is an exhilarating climax.  The characters ‘go the full monty’ as if to say, We are men and here we are.  Stripped of everything else, it’s a moment of self-assertion and defiance.  There is a lot of man-flesh on show but more than that, the show exhibits a lot of heart.  Uplifting in a time of recession, the play, like the film before it, remains life-affirming and a great deal of fun.

(The tour is proving extremely popular – if you want to see it in Birmingham, an extra matinee has been added on Thursday 17th)

ltor-louis-emerick-andrew-dunn-kai-owen-gary-lucy-anthony-lewis-chris-fountain-kneeling-in-the-full-monty-credit-matt-crockett

Under a vest: L to R: Louis Emerick, Andrew Dunn, Kai Owen, Gary Lucy, Anthony Lewis. Front: Chris Fountain. (Photo: Matt Crockett)