Plot and pop are entertainingly in tune in The Band, a bubbly jukebox musical that celebrates fandom, friendship and fulfilment.
The Band is written by Tim Firth, features the music of Take That (Britain’s most successful boy band to date) and stars the winners of the BBC’s 2017 reality show Let It Shine. Thousands of talented wannabes applied to take part in the programme and a handful competed through four rounds of competition on prime-time Saturday night telly. At the end of the series, five young men were chosen to become “the band” for a new touring musical.
Significantly, The Band is not a tribute to the Take That boys. Nor, somewhat surprisingly, is it all about the winners of the television contest. Instead, it is a heartfelt “ta very much” to music enthusiasts and an affectionate ode to friendship.
The real stars of The Band are a terrific tribe of refreshingly ordinary female characters who, despite being presented as exaggerated archetypes, still manage to ring true. We meet Rachel, Debbie, Heather, Claire and Zoe when they are sixteen-year-old girls, each with their own distinctive dreams. Excitable Rachel dreams of having a happy marriage. Natural leader Debbie dreams of a future full of adventures with her best mates. Flirty fashionista Heather dreams of boys and a career as a designer. Sporty Claire dreams of swimming in the Olympics. Bookish Zoe dreams of attending university.
The year is 1992, the place is Manchester and the glue that holds these bezzies together is their devotion to ‘The Band’. These faithful fan girls do not just recreate the boys’ dance routines now and then and have posters of them in their lockers. Instead, the band’s music is an essential soundtrack to their lives. Arguing parents? Seek sanctuary in the safety of a boyband bubble and turn the volume up to drown out the bickering. School stress? Sing and boogie along to a tune by the boys. First gig and a chance to meet their heroes? Yes please!
Our five girls vow never to lose touch but a tragedy during the first act sees five become four (a nod to the same drop in Take That members, perhaps?). By the second act we are meeting their grown up selves: forty-something-year-old women who have lived lives lacking the friendship, hopes and dreams that they had when they were teenagers. Reunited, they try to fulfil their past ambition of meeting the band and rediscover themselves in the process.
The story, then, is set between two pop concerts, twenty-five years apart. We have a younger cast for the teenage schoolgirls and an older troupe of actresses too. Faye Christall, Rachelle Diedricks, Katy Clayton, Sarah Kate Howarth and Lauren Jacobs are in skittish high spirits as the young friends. Later, Rachel Lumberg, Heather Joyce, Alison Fitzjohn and Jayne McKenna bring wit and warmth to their roles. The uplifting narrative, with Take That songs deftly woven through, makes sure that all these ladies shine.
A lot can happen in twenty-five years. When we encounter the girls as adults, we see that life has not always been kind to them. Still, they remain plucky and they are not afraid to poke fun at themselves. Indeed, the show is not afraid to laugh at itself. It mocks the childish obsession with a pop band that can be a rite of passage for young people, while reminding us that we all have passions when we are youngsters that can fall by the wayside as we grow older. But must we really leave those interests and ambitions behind?
This musical’s message is probably communicated best when the cast sing Take That’s 1995 chart-topping hit, ‘Back for Good’. Arranged as a sweet-toned duet between the 90s teens and their adult selves, it allows the teenagers to apologise for whatever they said and whatever they did and the adults to tell their younger selves that they want them back. The harmonious singing, accentuated by an aura of hopefulness emanating from both the narrative and the cast members, leaves us feeling simultaneously solemn and uplifted.
The Band is about relationships more than it is about music. It is also about the girls more than it is about the boys. Together, AJ Bentley, Nick Carsberg, Curtis T Johns, Yazdan Qafouri and Sario Solomon are “The Band”. These five lads are better singers than they are dancers, but they gamely throw themselves into Kim Gavin’s choreography, gyrating and gambolling as necessary.
Really, the winners of the BBC show are more background artists than anything, making increasingly inventive appearances in every scene to serenade the girls. Watch out for them bursting into a bedroom, popping out of school lockers, posing as statues. It’s all quite a giggle – as is the fact that they are eternally youthful. While the girls grow up, the boys stay the same!
Despite this, the boys in the band put on a triumphant show, with top-notch singing and speedy costume changes. In fact, the way that they remain figures of fantasy makes sense because it reflects reality. We might feel like we know our favourite artists, but we only see a carefully curated version of who they are – the filtered part of their life that they want us to see.
Take That fans, Let It Shine viewers and anyone who wants a fun night out at the theatre will enjoy The Band. The show is now the fastest-selling musical theatre touring production of all time, probably thanks to being co-produced by Take That members Gary Barlow, Howard Donald, Mark Owen and Robbie Williams – and being given exposure on the BBC. Take That undoubtedly know their audience as they have (unlike the boys in the musical) grown older alongside their fans and references to Top of the Pops, Smash Hits and Ceefax go down a treat.
Before the finale, an MC encourages us to get involved by clapping, singing and dancing along (some people even start waving glowing mobile phones above their heads). In a nod to the importance of fans, he says: “don’t worry about stealing the show, it was your show all along”. Without a doubt, the musical message in this production is to remember that life is our show. So, never forget, with our friends by our side and a burning desire to continue doing the things that make our hearts sing, we really can rule the world!
The Band concludes its UK tour with performances at Mayflower Theatre, Southampton from Tuesday 12 until Saturday 16 March 2019.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.