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.