Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Band – a grounded story of everyday fans growing up to the soundtrack of Take That (Grand Opera House until 24 November)

The genius of The Band is that it makes no attempt to tell the story of the members of Take That. Instead it relates the story of the fans, following Rachel and her four young school friends from their first concert experience, a pivotal tragic accident on the way home, and into middle age when they meet up again and rediscover the bond that was formed around the music and the shared love of their pop idols.

Male and now in my mid-forties, I was never part of the target audience for Take That. And I was definitely in a distinct minority in the Grand Opera House audience at the opening last night.

The lack of any need to try to spot which of the male singers is musical Gary or cheeky Robbie or wee Mark together with the eighteen mostly recognisable and hummable songs, makes it very accessible. But it’s the emotion of the story that really hits half way through the first act and continues through to the final curtain that, for me, sets The Band aside from other pop music tribute shows.

Live musicians remain mostly hidden behind the set throughout the two and a bit hour performance. A larger-than-usual PA system is hung from the sides of the proscenium arch. While the volume and bass are turned up to belt out some of the hits, it’s the mellow numbers when the five lads’ close harmony is just backed by a guitar or piano that best showcase their vocal talent.

The five male singers were selected through the 2017 Let It Shine reality TV show, cunningly adding a second young audience for the show. Based on last night’s live performance, they’d put some of the original band members to shame.
“It always was your show all along”

The five teenagers have been moulded into easy-to-read stereotypes – bookish, sporty, mouthy, friendly and bubbly – and take on some of the boy band’s back catalogue as well as acting out the plot. The transition between young and older actors is well executed and while the whole show is drizzled with sweet nostalgia, there’s an honesty about how the intervening 25 years have not quite followed the dreams of the youngsters that resonates with audience members who won’t often see themselves as well represented amongst the actors up on stage.

As well as recreating some of the classic boy band poses and silhouettes, there’s lots of humour, a singing caretaker, Spandau Ballet jokes and a fantasy chariot sequence accompanied by Relight My Fire. Jayne McKenna impresses with her energy and loopiness as young Zoe, while Alison Fitzjohn fully owns her character’s startling transformation and is a good comedy sidekick for the older central character Rachel played by Rachel Lumberg.

The set takes full advantage of video mapping, projecting all kinds of scenes onto hung panels, and most memorably converting a plane’s nosecone into a glitter ball. Technically it’s a well constructed show, with the two-level set and props reconfiguring and revealing their secrets without fuss.

It’s not the first show in Belfast this month to tell the story of fans growing up to the soundtrack of Take That, with c21 Theatre’s It Only Takes a Minute in The MAC last week and finishing its tour in Strabane on Friday 16. In fact with Juliet, Naked still being screened in cinemas, and Bohemian Rhapsody at the top and A Star is Born lingering further down the film charts, there’s quite a focus on the interaction between musicians and fandom.

Music provides an escape. Communal listening provides shared experiences and friendships through common interests. Melodies become associated with places and key moments in life. By combining all this into a jukebox musical, Tim Firth has created a show that is more grounded and relevant to its audiences than the even more nonsensical Mamma Mia, and directors Kim Gavin and Jack Ryder have brought it to life on stage with confident, in tune performances that capture that group dynamic – recreating it with the audience in the final ten minutes – expressing something more powerful that merely taking a wistful look back at the nineties.

The Band plays in the Grand Opera House until 24 November, before the tour takes a break and the cast play the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London’s West End for six weeks over Christmas.

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