Although not a fan club member,I have been always aware that Take That were “there”, and can recognise most of their songs. That is a good start point for a Juke Box Musical. The music needs to transcend the established fan base to reach a broader audience if it is to endure, and Take That’s back catalogue is ubiquitous.
As the years have rolled by, so perceptions have changed of the band. Robbie Williams has become one of the biggest solo acts around, Gary Barlow one of the most distinguished songwriters, his career diversifying to include film scores and musicals.
Writer Tim Firth also has a distinguished pedigree. A Cambridge Graduate, he has had a string of theatrical successes, most notably with “Calendar Girls”, and has worked with Gary Barlow previously. It quickly becomes apparent that this has the ingredients to be a little more than a Take That greatest hits cash in. The television casting show series for the production gave it, and Gary Barlow, exposure which money cannot buy. The stage was set. But would it fly?
What the show isn’t is a concert show of Take That’s material. Nor is it the story of Take That. What it is, is a celebration of the lives of five young Take That fans, and their first ever Take That concert in the 90’s, the story of whom is reprised a quarter of a century later as they join up to see a reunion concert. It is about female friendship and fandom.
Right from the opening scene, the calibre of Firth’s script stands out. Authentic, humorous , warm with several good jokes, and a faithful sense of period, there is also a nice visual gag as the cover shot of “Progress” is visualised on stage. “Top of the Pops”, “Smash Hits” and cassette recordings of radio and tv programmes all take music fans on a trip down memory lane.
There are several musical highlights, all of which are ballads. “ Back for Good” is performed as a duet between the teenagers and their adult selves , poignant, tender and moving. “A Million Love Songs “ becomes an elegy to a lost friend, the imperious “Patience” seals a middle aged relationship. Throughout, the songs are skilfully arranged ,or rearranged, to fit the mood of the narrative, rather than vice versa.
A show which had the audience gagging to get up and dance finally unleashed the hordes when the omnipresent Dave invoked the crowd to do so with the exhortation, “It was your show all along”. And so it was.
An unexpected star of the show was the physical stage, and staging. The band appearing from nowhere in schoolgirl Rachel’s bedroom was just the first of many clever surprises. Back projection screens combined with physical stage props deftly and effectively, never more so than when a passenger airliner took off directly over our heads. The music is played live, adding to the vibrancy of the event, the musicians largely discretely appearing behind illuminated gauze screens.
The young Rachel and her four school friends , Debbie, Claire, Zoe, and brassy Heather (the subject of a cracking joke about the Duke of York) ) plot to dupe their parents to enable them to see the band at the Manchester Apollo in a heart-warming feel good start, which is abruptly interrupted when tragedy strikes.
Twenty five years later , the girls are reunited when Rachel wins tickets to a reunion concert in Prague, a device which skilfully facilitates some shrewd, and telling reassessments of life, achievements, failures, and personal identity. Alison Fitzjohn is particularly strong as the older version of the once lithesome Claire. Emily Joyce also excels as the older ex-siren Heather matching the sterling efforts of Katy Clayton as her younger self. It is those juxtapositions which make the show. Revelations about each other’s lives abound as the four become reacquainted.
Take That and their co-producers David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers with writer Tim Firth, have created a gem of a show that makes you laugh, cry and sing along to the soundtrack of a distant youth. It succeeds in transcending their large, but niche fanbase, winning over men who had dutifully accompanied their partners to relive their own schoolgirl dreams. Slick, with a big budget, big cast and many costume changes, this is a show which combines supreme professionalism from all involved in crafting the show with a beating brave heart. A feel -good musical needs to make you feel good as you left. I felt good.