If you know me, you’ll know that there are two types of story that push all my buttons: tales of female friendship; and stories that take teenage girls – and the things they love – seriously.
And that, dear reader, is the story of how I cried for two hours straight through a musical based around the songs of Take That.
The Band opens in a bedroom in Manchester in 1993: on 16-year-old Rachel (Faye Christall), yes; but more importantly on the Top of the Pops theme tune that was scratched into my soul. At five years younger than our heroines I was a little too young for Take That, but I can certainly identify with loving a boy band (passing my sister the Boyzone posters from my copies of Smash Hits to keep her away from whatever dubious lot I was into at the time) and wanting to marry a member of one (if Declan “His Brother’s A Priest You Know” Donnelly counts).
For Rachel and her friends, “the boys” are everything – but they’re almost peripheral as we follow the gang from the buzz of the high school lockers to their first pop concert, to the last bus home, to the rocks behind their home town on which they vow to be friends forever. Life, of course, happens while they’re making other plans, and after tragedy drives them apart the show, and the music, transport us 25 years into the future for a reunion tour in every sense.
BOTTOM:Jayne McKenna as Zoe, Rachel Lumberg as Rachel, Emily Joyce as Heather & Alison Fitzjohn as Claire, with Five To Five as The Band in The Band
With its soundtrack culled from the hits of the UK’s most successful boy band and cast members selected by way of BBC Saturday night light entertainment, it’s tempting to write off The Band as yet another jukebox musical seeking to cynically ape the success of Mamma Mia!. Tempting, that is, until you experience it. From the poignant script by Tim Firth of Calendar Girls fame, to what are easily the most spectacular sets I’ve ever experienced as part of a touring production – developed, according to the programme, with the assistance of some of those who have worked on Take That’s equally spectacular tours – it’s clear that this show is something pretty special. (Although I’d question the use of flare cannons in the never-knowingly-not-sweltering King’s Theatre on Glasgow’s hottest day for 20 years.)
A word, too, on the music: by having “the boys” pop up as the soundtrack to Rachel’s life, springing from school lockers and airline safety demonstrations and even a Prague fountain, the show for the most part avoids awkwardly shoehorning pre-existing hits into some semblance of a plot. (The titular Band is never named, although the logos are there and one of them even looks like Noel Gallagher’s “fat dancer” right up until he takes his shirt off to reveal pure muscle.) It makes those songs that are repurposed as plot all the more poignant for being ones that you already know all the words to: a particularly moving sequence on in which the cast duet “Back For Good” with their 16-year-old selves on the night bus stands out here; as does “Rule The World”, a perfectly-placed rare example of “the boys [having] a song for this moment”.
There’s a temptation here to call out the number of later-period snoozefests bogging down the setlist – except it turns out I’m the only person who doesn’t know all the words to “Greatest Day” and “The Flood”.
BOTTOM: The cast of The Band
The show is not without its problems, mostly down to the script: the teenage cast, all spectacular, are reduced to high school stereotypes; and the reveal of sporty Claire’s 25-year weight gain being played for laughs might not have been quite so problematic had the audience not responded quite so enthusiastically. Alison Fitzjohn’s wholehearted embrace of the role is its saving grace though, and among the friends its her story that is ultimately the most poignant.
Five To Five, boy band winners of the BBC’s Let It Shine, sing and dance their hearts out with considerable skill, and a work ethic comparable to that of their predecessors first time around. That none of them get the chance to shine individually might come as a surprise to anyone who ever fought over Mark or Robbie – while underlining that the band is but the support act to the women at the heart of the show.
And, ultimately, to the women – and men – of the audience. Towards the end of the show, Every Dave (Andy Williams), who pops up in a variety of increasingly hilarious supporting roles throughout, breaks the fourth wall to encourage even the most jaded reviewers amongst us to sing, dance and turn our smartphones into torches. This story “was yours all along” he says – yours, if you ever had a best friend, or ever loved a boy band.
The Band is at King’s Theatre, Glasgow until Saturday, 7th July – click here to book. The show then continues to tour ahead of a London West End run from 1st December – 12th January: see thebandmusical.com for details.
All production photos by Matt Crockett; used with permission.