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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Band
Haymarket Theatre Winter 2018-2019

One of the big West End stories for 2018 is the change in ownership of the Theatre Royal Haymarket and speculation about changes in programming. If the confidently titled The Band is anything to go by, it’s all looking good.

This is the musical based on the pop hits of uber boy band Take That, who first cut their teeth in the early 90s. Since then, aside from the  dd hiatus and breakaway band member Robbie Williams’ solo career, they've held a solid residency in the charts and arena circuit.

But this is no jukebox-musical-shoehorning-classics-into-a-popcorn-plot sort of show. What you have instead is a surprisingly insightful (and fun) take on fandom, identity and friendships. And knowing your Gary Barlows from your Robbie Williams isn't a prerequisite – it's a show for everyone.

Rather than spin out a band biog, Tim Firth’s bubbly script follows five schoolgirls in the North West of England (Take That’s one home turf) as they bond over the new pop phenomenon storming the charts 25 years ago.

Embracing Take That as the literal soundtrack for their lives, the teenage fans swap dreams, muse over what they’ll become (an intriguing companion piece perhaps for Clare Barron’s Dance Nation), get up to teenage shenanigans, thrill at a concert by their icons. But tragedy strikes and all those hopes are left hanging.

Fast forward 25 years, the band are on tour again, and now we meet the girls' grown-up selves. Will they reconnect, overcome their differences, be accepting of the dreams they've won and lost?

Directed by Kim Gavin and Jack Ryder, The Band is a funny, endearing if slight tale that, Willy Russell-style, weaves the music as a window to our souls into a plot where the band are defined by their fans who are themselves defined by the band, lent added dimension by the two generations.

It’s a winning generous ensemble, honed by a year of regional tours, with notable performances including Rachelle Dierdericks as young Debbie, Faye Christall as young Rachel, Rachel Lumberg as Rachel and Alison Fitzjohn as Claire.

And let's not forget the lads playing Take That – AJ, Yazdan, Curtis, Nick and Sario – picked by the public via the Let It Shine talent show V series to appear in the stage show. Choreographed by Gavin, they recreate all the trademark routines from the videos, Smash Hits posters and arena set-pieces.

A running philosophical question is whether there's a Take That song for every occasion. From the evidence there would seem to be. All the hits are here and it’s when the girls/women sing them that they truly resonate, the emotion of their lives channelling through the pop. Pray, It Only Takes a Minute, Back for Good... the ballads are as footstomping as the anthems. Even Shine, a song I’ve never rated, takes on poignant depth.

While it's not Mamma Mia!, The Band earns its own appeal through the idea of banishing nostalgia as the fans discover new values in the songs that bonded them for life.

Now, having said all that, there are a few disappointments. The boy band members don’t really gel: little contrast in their vocal palette, muddy sound mix, not much chemistry, patchy movement. Where they do come into their own is in framing the numbers that are the fan's scenes, which is the point I suppose.

More concerning (excuse the spoiler) is the fact that this production kills off the only black performer before the end of Act I. I'll note that aside from an inclination to North-West character and values, there is nothing in any of the characters to suggest racial or ethnic background. A healthy number of productions nationwide are actively responding to diversity through casting, so this particular decision is one that is puzzling at the very least.

And a minor quibble – there's no interview or biog in the ‘souvenir’ programme of writer Tim Firth. It’s not like he’s a hire-in: he goes back a long time with Take That mainman Gary Barlow, and wrote Madness musical Our House, co-wrote Calendar Girls, musical spin-off The Girls and the film Kinky Boots.

Nick Awde

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Review - The Band - Haymarket Theatre 2018