BWW Review: THE BAND, Manchester Opera House
Most people have that one band, or even that one song, which takes them back to another time completely. Whether it's a good time or a bad time, music has the ability to hit you with nostalgia at any moment. Or as Tim Firth, writer of new Take That musical The Band, more eloquently puts it: "Music is magical. It makes time travellers out of us all."
And that's what The Band really shows us. It starts with a 16-year-old Rachel (Faye Christall) talking about her love for a boy band, watched on by her adult counterpart (Rachel Lumberg). Twenty-five years later, her life has changed, but when the group comes back into her life, she and her now 40-year-old friends try, once again, to meet the band that shaped their childhood.
There was some controversy about the fact that this jukebox musical in fact chooses to focus more on the fans than the band, given that the latter - played by Five to Five members AJ Bentley, Sario Solomon, Curtis T Johns, Nick Carsberg and Yazdan Qafouri - were cast via high-profile BBC talent show Let It Shine.
But in illustrating how the band affected the lives of five teenage girls, the show cannily becomes a thank you for the reunion of old friends, and to the fans who have carried Take That to stardom over the years - many of whom, of course, compose the audience. At the show's climax, they're told "It was your show all along".
Kim Gavin and Jack Ryder's production does lean on a lot of comic clichés, however the humour never feels forced. It all flows very naturally, with many nods to the Nineties (and Take That) - much to the delight of the audience.
Firth's book features a well-struck balance of humour and emotion. The use of repetition shows how the friends come full circle - and come to terms with the tragedy of their pasts. With balloons and wristbands playing an important but subtle part in the plot, it really paints the picture of what it's like to be a part of a fanbase.
Jon Bausor's set transports us from a teenage bedroom to arenas, a plane and the top of a hill, among others. A particularly effective scene in the second half sees a statue come to life - an impressive feat of creativity, not to mention stamina from the Five to Five boys.
The Take That songs are smartly chosen to move the story along, either forming the two concerts 25 years apart, or used simply as background music to show the emotion of the situation. It's particularly moving when the adult women sing "Back for Good" with their younger selves, in a setting they once shared with so much joy, and which became soured by loss. It really showcases the power that music can have over a person.
Many of the younger cast members are making their professional debut, and in style. Rachelle Diedericks - who plays the teenage Debbie, a wannabe dancer - shows particular promise, and Five to Five successfully evoke the energy and talent of a young Take That.
Nostalgic, entertaining and heartwarming, this touring production may yet go on to rule, if not the world, then at least the West End.
Review by Abigail Donoghue
Picture credit: Matt Crockett