It is perhaps unsurprising that the success of a musical depends largely on the music. Tim Firth arguably had half his work done for him when he was handed a free, all-you-can-listen-to pass to the Take That vault. It’s difficult for a band to enjoy nearly 30 years atop the charts without a glittering array of hits to accompany them. But despite The Band being publicised as Take That’s attempt at a ‘Mamma Mia’, the lovable fivepiece-cum-fourpiece-cum-threepiece’s contributions are largely overshadowed by Tim Firth’s stunning script.
Although the supergroup’s versatile repertoire is awash with both moving ballads and celebratory anthems, it is no mean feat to balance the authenticity of the plot-line with the audience’s thirst to hear all the hits. Inevitably, The Band suffers somewhat from the fact that the necessary inclusion of ‘Shine’, ‘Never Forget’, ‘These Days’, and ’Greatest Day’ create consistent crescendos along the way, making it a struggle to reach an even greater climax for the grand finale. By the same token, though, the abundance of carpe diem tracks serves to make the downcast moments even more touching, with ‘A Million Love Songs’ producing one of the most striking sequences of the play.
After a rather hectic beginning, the story settles down and draws the audience along through all of its elegant twists and turns. The characters could be established more vibrantly, so that we really root for them, especially given the stark change in dynamic after the time warp. But as a whole the plot wraps itself nicely around its leading ladies, maintaining a sense of pace whilst not leaving the audience behind.
Firth wrote in his introduction to the programme that he was inspired to write ‘The Band’ because ‘music makes time travellers of us all’, and this play acts as his convincing case study in favour of this. We join a group of teenage girls as they embark on a memorable journey to see the band they all adore, making plans to be Olympic gold medallists and top fashion designers, before a tragedy throws us jarringly 25 years in the future, and we get to see where they are now. The time switch is prefaced by a monologue from starlet Faye Christall (Rachel), in which she recalls her grandma’s cynical words, ‘If you truly want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans’. The group somehow get back in touch and head out to Prague in an attempt to rekindle – or maybe more appropriately, relight – the fire of their youth. It’s heartwarming, without being too on-the-nose.
Anyone who was lucky enough to see Take That’s Circus tour will know that Gary Barlow has a knack for putting on a spectacle. However involved he actually was in this production, the group’s flair has clearly been translated into it by directors Kim Gavin and Jack Ryder. The visuals for The Band are fantastic – in one sequence the boys break out from a fountain as statues into a flurry of shimmering confetti; in another they chomp at the bit of a chariot, donning gladiator helmets, flames angrily curling up and lashing out of the scenery; and in a particularly memorable scene they wheel their troupe of fans round on aeroplane stairs, with everyone on stage looking as though they’re enjoying themselves just as much as the audience.
With all of the hype surrounding Barlow’s 2017 talent show, ‘Let It Shine’, which was designed to find the four band-members for this show, and with the play being called The Band, you could be forgiven for presuming the boys are the stars. This is far from the case, with the plot being centred firmly around the story of the teenage girls and how their lives develop. Having said that, what gives this musical life is the way the boyband are integrated into the girls’ everyday activities. They help Rachel get ready for school, they are there singing words of encouragement when she then cannot decide whether to follow her heart or her head, and they even, bless them, help her wash her dirty socks. One thing’s for sure, you wouldn’t get Oasis doing that. Their smooth integration into the storyline is a delight to watch, and adds a homely tinge of charm to the overall production.
The Band is full of nostalgic fun and pivots upon an apt mantra about the pervasiveness of music in people’s lives, and underlines how hearing a simple melody or riff can transport you back to your youth. It will be appreciated more directly by those who have been around to witness the entirety of Take That’s illustrious career, with various 80s and 90s references peppering the plot, along with a pointed Ceefax newsflash wryly telling us of the creation of the EU. Nonetheless, it is a testament to the UK supergroup’s longevity that they have so many songs that are loved across all generations.