Boy band with their fans a quarter of century of life apart. Pictures: Matt Crockett

The Band

Birmingham Hippodrome


For Take That fans this is like manna from heaven, a theatrical pilgrimage; for anyone else it is a clever musical, full of heart, laughs, emotion and nostalgia. Everyone wins with this one.

I suspect, from the reaction on Press night, more than half the audience went through their teen years with a crush on Gary Barlow, Robbie Williams and the rest - the lady in front of me knowing the words to every song.

And those same, now older, fans probably made vows in blood, or whatever was at hand, with their own gaggle of girls to be best friends for ever.

It was part of growing up, and now, a quarter of a century on, they can see their own lives unfold before them on stage in Tim Firth’s poignant and very human script.

We all know it is about Take That, yet the band are never mentioned by name, they are just the band, an anonymous boy band, up there, appearing in concert or, literally, being part of the scenery, and always in the background, which probably sums up a teenage girl’s obsession.

Or in this case five teenage girls’ obsessions. All sweet 16, there is Rachel (Faye Christall), Debbie (Rachelle Diedericks, Claire (Sarah Kate Howarth), Zoe (Lauren Jacobs) and Heather (Katy Clayton), and even here Tim Firth has all the bases covered so women, in particular, in the audience can identify themselves or their long lost best friends.


Rachelle Diedericks, left, Faye Christall, Katy Clayton, Sarah Kate Howarth and Lauren Jacobs as the teen friends who vowed to be best friends for ever

There is the clever one, books rather than boys, obviously destined for academia, the man-mad one playing Russian roulette with pregnancy, the healthy, athletic sporty one, the chubby one who can't dance . . . and the one who introduces them to loss.

The story centres on just two concerts by the band, first in Manchester, incidentally where Take That formed, and the second in Prague 25 years later – with Debbie winning tickets for them all in a competition to the former and Rachel winning them tickets to the latter.

The 1992 euphoria of seeing their heroes live is crushed when Debbie is killed on the way home from Manchester and the sense of grief and loss is too much for the group to bear or to survive intact – until 25 years later when an older Rachel (Rachel Lumberg), now 41, wins tickets to a concert by the band again in a competition she doesn't know why she entered and, for reasons she never really understands, then contacts the group, reforming the quartet.

Rachel, whose ambition back in the day was to marry, has lived with a fella, Jeff (Martin Miller) for years but has shunned all his matrimonial advances.

Claire’s (Alison Fitzjohn) hopes of Olympic diving success took their own dive after Debbie’s death and she took comfort in food – lots of it – and it shows along with her frustration at being fat.

Zoe (Jayne McKenna), the clever one, was not too clever when it came to sex leaving uni heavy with child in the first year to become, eventually, a mum of four, while Heather (Emily Joyce), the man-mad one? You’ll have to buy a ticket for that one.


Rachel Lumberg as Rachel and Martin Miller as Jeff

Firth gives each character a chance to tell their story, stories people in the audience can relate to and there is plenty of humour - the Duke of York line is a gem - while the giggling teenagers contrast nicely with their more mature older selves – we even have them appearing together singing a poignant duet.

All right, it’s hardly Tennessee Williams when it comes to character development, but when it comes to jukebox musicals this is right up there at the Mama Mia! end of the genre rather than wallowing in the cram in as many songs as we can and stick a few words in between shallow end of the pool. This is how it should be done. A good script with a believable plot all allied to music that is part of the story and helps move it along.

The band themselves, AJ, Curtis, Sario, Nick and Yazdan, who came through BBC’s Let It Shine, are personable enough, sing pleasantly and have the dance moves, but, importantly, although they are a constant presence, they don’t dominate. They, and their music, are constantly in the minds of first our teen girls and then, 25 years later, have become memories of a lost youth.

We can all relate to that, records, songs, artists that might not have influenced our lives but certainly marked milestones in them. Hear a few bars on the radio and your mind is in another place, another time.

So for people of a certain age this was not just a musical but a journey through their memories as songs from Take That’s back catalogue drifted by them.

The girls, old and young, had some lovely touches and great timing for the one liners and put downs, so much so that you were drawn into their stories, you started to care about them, felt for their lost dreams.

You even feel for Jeff, who is not good with words, and his loyalty to Rachel who, over 20 years or so has never agreed to marry him as “the time isn’t right”, and it never will be unless she faces up her past.

Firth avoids turning this into some maudlin nostalgiafest though, with a lovely script which is well-armed with barbed comments ready to throw in to prick any move into melancholy.

And when all else fails there is Andy Williams as the grumpy caretaker, roady, airport cleaner, departure gate staff, bus driver in Manchester and Prague, and even turning up as MC for the curtain calls and singalong. It’s a wonder he didn’t check your ticket and show you to your seat.

Jon Bausor’s setting is slick and effective moving from school, to airport, arena to statue and fountain, police station to teen bedroom and then to the rocky outcrop overlooking their home town where it all starts and ends; all quite effortlessly with no delays.

Patrick Woodroffe’s lighting design ranges from dramatic to subtle, from arena to kitchen, always interesting, always adding to the scene while directors Kim Gavin and Jack Ryder keep things moving along with a nice balance between laughs and tears.

A mention too for the excellent five piece band to give the music a great sound with Terry Jardine and Nick Lidster's sound design creating a pleasing balance between speech and songs.

Put it all together and the result, whether a Take That fan or not, is a cracking night’s entertainment. So much feel good factor it could be magic! To 12-05-18

Roger Clarke



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