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.
The boys in the Band (Photo: Matt Crockett)
Leave a comment | tags: AJ Bentley, Alison Fitzjohn, Andy Williams, Birmingham Hippodrome, Curtis T Johns, Emily Joyce, Faye Christall, Jack Ryder, Jayne McKenna, Katy Clayton, Kim Gavin, Lauren Jacobs, Martin Miller, Nick Carsberg, Rachel Lumberg, Rachelle Diedericks, review, Sarah Kate Howarth, Sario Solomon, Take That, The Band, Tim Firth, Yazdan Qafouri | posted in Theatre Review
THE FULL MONTY
Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 26th February, 2013
Writer Simon Beaufoy adapts his own screenplay from the much-loved film for this touring stage production – a play, unlike the musical version of a few years ago, which transplanted the action to the USA. The good news is this adaptation brings the story back to Sheffield and works brilliantly. Playing to a packed house, the story is something of a period piece but I was struck by how pertinent it is to today’s economic woes.
Driven by necessity to stealing girders from the factory in which they used to work, the men of Sheffield hit upon the idea of forming a male strip troupe for a one-night only, get cash quick, performance, that will ease their situation and lift them (albeit temporarily) out of the mire.
The premise immediately taps into a rich vein of humour but also a richer vein of pathos. What the film did, and what the play does, is give dignity to the jobless by emphasising their humanity. They are not just statistics, or the ‘undeserving poor’ – these are individuals each with his own story. In Thatcher’s Britain, the unemployed were perhaps more visible than they are nowadays in the land of Cameron and Clegg. These days, they are hidden in fudged figures and online job-seeking. These days they are clumped together as scroungers and shirkers, vilified and demonised. This play reminds us the unemployed have skills, feelings and aspirations. I found it very apposite. Members of the misguided Cabinet should be made to watch this show until they get the point.
Led by Gaz, the group of men stumble their way through rehearsals, in hilarious bouts of physical comedy. None of them are Chippendales material, but that is entirely the point. They are bloke-shaped blokes, willing to objectify themselves from economic necessity, in circumstances that were not of their making. It all builds to the performance itself and the final reveal. Backlighting protects the actors’ modesty, but that final moment of triumph when the characters go the full monty is uplifting in its symbolism. We are men, the gesture asserts, here we are. In their northern dialect, one might say “Ecky homo!”
The cast is excellent. Kenny Doughty’s Gaz is the Jack-the-lad figure, desperate to retain access to his son (a very strong Jay Olpin). Roger Morlidge is Dave, the biggest bloke on a diet of cream crackers. He’s a gentle giant and his scenes with wife Jean (a superb Rachel Lumberg) are among the most touching moments. Craig Gazey is weirdo Lomper, displaying perfect comic timing. Simon Rouse is effective as ex-foreman Gerald who comes to learn that even people who don’t attend the Conservative club, and yes, even his own wife, have more to them than he at first supposes. Sidney Cole brings dignity as well as broad comedy to his role as a man called Horse, and Kieran O’Brien brings confidence as cocky Guy – if I can use that epithet!
Robert Jones’s design keeps the architecture of the disused factory present throughout. Its girders and corrugated iron haunt the men’s lives wherever they go. Director Daniel Evans handles the changes in tone and the action expertly. I suspect that a large contingent in the audience come to see some grown men take off their clothes rather than a play about grown men who take off their clothes. There’s a difference in perception there but the drama wins out. When the men achieve their aim, reclaiming their masculinity, we cheer their endeavour and their success rather than the actual stripping. I’d like to think that’s the case, anyway. And any anti-Thatcher sentiment is always welcome.
A thoroughly entertaining evening and a flawless production, The Full Monty is much, much more than a bit of a giggle for a girls’ night out.
2 Comments | tags: Birmingham Hippodrome, Craig Gazey, Daniel Evans, Kenny Doughty, Kieran O'Brien, Rachel Lumberg, review, Robert Jones, Roger Morlidge, Sidney Cole, Simon Beaufoy, Simon Rouse, The Full Monty | posted in Theatre Review
New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 21st August, 2012
Arthur Wing Pinero’s classic comedy from 1887 is given a new lease of life by director Christopher Luscombe in this revival soon to transfer to London’s West End.
The old theatrical conventions of speaking asides to the audience and punctuating scenes with tableaux here seem incredibly refreshing. This is a production that celebrates artifice and contrivance within its plot and in its performance. The actors play it larger-than-life in order to accommodate these conventions but there is no hint of spoof and no knowing winks. As far as they can, they play the material straight, albeit in a heightened and exaggerated manner.
It is a breath of fresh air.
Comedy traditionally has two types of character: those who seek to enjoy life’s pleasures and those who seek to thwart them. And so we have The Very Reverend Augustin Jedd (Nicholas Le Prevost) ruling the roost in his deanery, anti-gambling and anti-extravagance. Unfortunately for this old stick-in-the-mud, his two daughters are spendthrifts and pleasure-seekers. Together with their army beaux, they plot to sneak out after dark to a fancy dress ball. Meanwhile, Jedd’s widowed sister descends on the house. She is far from the withered fragment they are expecting. Instead she is rather mannish and full of fun – Patricia Hodge in a scene-stealing performance. Such fun! She speaks in horse metaphors and racing slang. In fact, Pinero’s script has much to delight in its use of language. The plot may be earthier than anything Wilde ever concocted but the élan and esprit of the dialogue is definitely from the same stable.
A pub fire and a bout of horse doping leads to the incarceration of the hapless Dean – adhering to the tradition that the killjoy and fuddy-duddy must be made to suffer and look ridiculous – but somehow everything comes good before the final curtain. Nicholas Le Prevost is an imperious yet likeable old duffer as the Dean; Patricia Hodge is note perfect as the horsey Georgiana. The entire ensemble is delectable. Daughters Salome (Florence Andrews) and Sheba (Jennifer Rhodes) witter and sing and comport themselves in a hilariously melodramatic fashion. Their boyfriends and co-conspirators are dashing (Peter Sandys-Clarke) and talented (Charles De Bromhead, treating us to some exquisite violin playing). John Arthur as Blore the butler is a delight to behold, pipped at the post for my pick of the running by Rachel Lumberg in an excruciatingly funny portrayal of Hannah, the constable’s wife.
The attention to detail is meticulous. There is no reaction, no bit of business that has been overlooked, and yet the piece ticks along merrily and never feels laboured or overwrought. It is like discovering a recipe for soufflé in an ancient cookbook – one that takes a particular skill to pull off successfully, proving, lest we forget, that sometimes the old ways are still the best.
Leave a comment | tags: Arthur Wing Pinero, Charles De Bromhead, Christopher Luscombe, Dandy Dick, Florence Andrews, Jennifer Rhodes, John Arthur, New Alexandra Theatre, Nicholas Le Prevost, Patricia Hodge, Peter Sandys-Clarke, Rachel Lumberg, review | posted in Theatre Review