The much hyped musical based on Take That’s back catalogue, The Band, written by Tim Firth, kicks off a two week run at Royal & Derngate.
I have a confession to make. I loved Take That growing up. I had a well-loved tin pencil case with all of their faces on, which I artfully scratched to pieces when Robbie left, leaving just his face intact. That said, I never quite descended into full-blown obsession – I was only 9 when they broke up after all. But needless to say, many a copy of Smash Hits was destroyed in order to have their pictures on my bedroom wall. So I was excited to see how The Band incorporated the songs I used to listen to on cassette many, many moons ago…
The Band gathers a group of teenagers who, unlike me, were in the throes of complete teenage obsession with the unnamed “band”, who they lovingly refer to as The Boys. “I grew up with a boyband,” says both young Rachel (Faye Christall) and Rachel now (Rachel Lumberg) – drawing in a whole generation of women who spent their teenage years loving, and lusting after, an endless parade of handsome singing lads.
Rachel and her friends win tickets to see “the boys”, and enjoy their concert only for a life-changing tragedy to strike on their journey home. Their lives are never the same again, and the friendship falls apart. Leap to 25 years later, and Rachel once again wins tickets to see their reunion tour in Prague, and sees it as a prime opportunity to “get the band back together”. There are strong performances all around from the female cast members, although Katy Clayton as young Heather and Alison Fitzjohn as Claire were standouts.
Jukebox musicals are in fashion at present, and it’s a trend I’m not overly keen on – as they’re often not done very well. The Band is one heck of an exception to that rule. It utterly avoids the feeling of the plot having been built around a selection of songs, instead each piece of theatrically adapted music works perfectly with the storyline. Songs aren’t sung for the songs’ sake – the younger incarnations of the girls are sat atop a hill when one says “Have the boys got a song that’s right for moments like this?” – the audience starts running through Take That’s long musical history in their heads for a title before a simple “No.” is uttered, bluntly, rather than trying to shoehorn something in.
Despite the long accompanying TV series “Let It Shine” to pick the band, the “boys” themselves (AJ Bently, Nick Carlsberg, Curtis T Johns, Sario Solomon and, in this case, understudy Harry Brown) are not the focus of the story, but work as a sort of musical Greek Chorus, singing the inner thoughts of Rachel, and occasionally bursting out into a full-on dance routine. They’re a very talented group, full of the energy and vibrancy of early Take That themselves, and they take on the huge task of not only beautiful harmonised singing while performing some complicated choreography, but also playing dozens of characters, including at one point, carved stone Gods on a fountain.
The Band very cleverly steers just clear of being another nostalgia trip (despite the loving references to Ceefax, Top of the Pops and Smash Hits), and keeps “the boys” at the very distance we’re used to – either in imaginations or on the stage, never fully formed characters in their own rights, but purely what those they’re entertaining make of them. This could easily have been The Take That Story, but instead, it’s the story of their fans, and how their shared love of music built a friendship that withstands more than they thought possible. Writer Tim Firth gets close at times to stumbling into the jukebox musical pitfall of falling back on cliches but always seems to swerve away before it becomes cringy. There are some truly lovely moments too, such as the grown-up girls singing “Back For Good” to their younger selves, and Jeff (Martin Miller) trying to apologise to girlfriend Rachel with lyrics written on prompt cards.
Very possibly the star of the show, however, is Andy Williams as “Every Dave” (as he’s credited in the programme), reluctantly singing along with various hits and playing roadies, a Czech police officer, the Budjet Airlines employee, and a couple of bus drivers; he steals every scene he’s in.
All the action takes place on a set made entirely of enormous pinned up photographs, used brilliantly alongside projections to take the audience from concert halls to airport waiting rooms. The lighting, too, swaps from stage lights to concert lights, transporting us to the gig along with the girls to enjoy the Band’s performance. Costume is used to amazing effect – the subtle colour and style theme for each girl doesn’t really become obvious until they’re singing together, and then it works beautifully. The Boys’ quick changes are seamlessly done, with their costumes mirroring some of Take That’s more interesting style choices over the years.
The Band isn’t perfect; the storyline feels a bit too sentimental, and perhaps spends too long being morose without lifting the audience back up quite high enough. But as jukebox musicals go, this is a new height for others to aspire to.
Take That fans who, like Rachel, grew up with a boyband are going to lap this up – not for the handsome young men playing every teenagers’ dream, but for the stories that the women here share. It is slick, sad, and funny and more than anything, an enjoyable night out at the theatre you’re likely to Never Forget.
The Band runs at Royal & Derngate until 9 June 2018. Tickets available from www.royaladnderngate.co.uk
Performance: Tues 29 May 2018, Derngate Auditorium, Northampton
Rebecca is a theatre lover originally from Birmingham. She founded On Stage Northants in 2017, and is passionate about promoting Northampton performing arts. Can usually be found behind the scenes, and occasionally in front of them too. Bec also blogs at StageyRebel