Review: The Band, Manchester Opera House

“Do the boys have a song for a moment like this?”
Having a bit of fun with this one – there was actually 8 of us in attendance at new Take That musical The Band (with a boisterous Saturday evening crowd), for the occasion of celebrating my niece’s 13th birthday. And from ages 10 to (almost) 70, we all really enjoyed ourselves, so I put everyone to work to chip in with their favourite bits about the show, a la Smash Hits. Written by Tim Firth, what I found particularly pleasing was that The Band actually proves an engaging and entertaining piece of theatre, one that has clearly thought about the jukebox form and how it might be played with.


We open in 16-year-old Rachel’s bedroom in 1993, a time of Ceefax and Top of the Pops, of teenage dreams and life’s potential. But her parents are on the brink of divorce and so she retreats under the covers to listen to ‘the boys’, her favourite band who she is able to conjure up at a moment’s notice. It’s a nifty conceit, this internalised band, as it plays both into the fantasy element of being a devoted fan and provides a conduit for the bursting-into-song required of a musical, whether Rachel is using the music to drown out the harshness of the real world or lose herself in a reverie of hunky gladiators.

Firth’s book surrounds Rachel with her 4 closest friends, all equally into the band, but also follows them 25 years on, to see how those schoolgirl hopes and dreams have played out. And he nails the kind of ‘real life’ humour which has arguably become his shtick – so if you’re going to do a fat person joke, make it as funny as this one; don’t be afraid of being cheesy (look out for how the lyrics to ‘Babe’ are used) but underscore everything with real compassion. The result is a heartwarming hug of a plot – sure, it won’t be to everyone’s taste but when has that ever really been a problem?!

Kim Gavin and Jack Ryder’s production also balances the glossiness of the world of musical theatre with something akin to realism. So of course we get big production numbers (‘Relight My Fire’ is an eye-popping delight; ‘The Flood’ is also v well done) but at the same time, the older versions of the characters look like normal women with a range of body shapes – it may seem like a small thing but it is a quietly political move. Rachel Lumberg, Emily Joyce, Jayne McKenna and Alison Fitzjohn are all most entertaining as they interact together, particularly where Prague and planes are concerned and there’s something joyous about watching Fitzjohn seemingly have the time of her life.

As for ‘the boys’, the band Five To Five (put together on BBC reality show Let It Shine) acquit themselves well. Hired for their muscles (to put on display at regular intervals) and their muscle (they’re often responsible for shifting the components of Jon Bausor’s functional design around), I think I preferred them as Rachel’s internal group where they have a little more opportunity to show some personality, as opposed to the performances as the band themselves, where they have little choice but to recreate the moves that Take That are famed for and which the audience long to see.

I did have a couple of notes. I wish the show didn’t indulge in a variation on this particular trope (spoiler alert if you click on it!) though perversely, it did mean we got to see more of the excellent Rachel Diedericks. And the realities of a touring theatre design inevitably mean it doesn’t always match the staging grandeur of the Take That concerts it tries to ape. And the behaviour of a Saturday night audience in the mood for some participation was a little grating, particularly in the quiet moments. 

But even then I find it hard to begrudge them that because The Band proved to be such a fun evening, regardless of the context. And if some are tempted to sneer for reasons of snobbery or whatever, it is worth remembering that the show is going to be encouraging people (and dare I say it, including a fair few non-regular theatregoers) to have such fun in theatres across the country and I can’t see how that is a bad thing. Could it be magic? It just might.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 30th September, then touring to…
Sheffield Lyceum Theatre 3 – 14 October
Bradford Alhambra Theatre 17 – 28 October
Mayflower Theatre Southampton 31 October – 11 November
Llandudno Venue Cymru 14 – 25 November
Regent Theatre Stoke-on-Trent 28 November – 9 December
Wales Milennium Centre Cardiff 9 – 20 January
Liverpool Empire Theatre 23 January – 3 February
Norwich Theatre Royal 6 – 17 February
Marlowe Theatre Canterbury 20 February – 3 March
Hull New Theatre 6 – 17 March
Leeds Grand Theatre 20 – 31 March
Newcastle Theatre Royal 3 – 14 April
Bristol Hippodrome 17 – 28 April
Birmingham Hippodrome 1 – 12 May
Plymouth Theatre Royal 15 – 26 May
Northampton Royal & Derngate 29 May – 9 June
Nottingham Theatre Royal 12 – 23 June
Glasgow King’s Theatre 26 June – 7 July
Edinburgh Playhouse 10 – 14 July

Review: Hir, Bush

“We don’t do cupboards anymore. 
We don’t do order”

Taylor Mac’s Hir comes loaded with worlds of contemporary resonances, particularly in its exploration of the disaffection of the American working class and its probing into multiple layers of gender politics. And in this blackest of black comedies, getting its UK premiere at the Bush, it is – initially at least – vigorously, startlingly effective as an reinvention of the archetypal dysfunctional family drama.

We open with Isaac’s return to his small-town California home having been dishonourably discharged from the Marines. Working in the mortuary during a tour of Afghanistan has shattered him but he soon finds the home comforts he’s been dreaming of remain as far away as ever. His father has had a stroke, his mother is enacting vicious revenge on him for their abusive relationship by shattering the patriarchal order in the household, and he also discovers that his sibling is transitioning. Not quite the welcome home he was expecting. Continue reading “Review: Hir, Bush”

Round-up of news and treats and other interesting things

Over in Canary Wharf, The Space Theatre might not necessarily be one that is on the radar of many London theatregoers but the announcement of their summer season ought to tempt the theatrically curious out East as it is full of goodies, not least a revival of Mike Bartlett’s excellent Contractions.

Find a selection of some of productions that have caught my eye below

Continue reading “Round-up of news and treats and other interesting things”

DVD Review: ShakespeaRe-Told – The Taming of the Shrew/A Midsummer Night’s Dream

“When you speak, it sounds like poetry”

The second disc of ShakespeaRe-Told (first disc reviewed here) features reworkings of The Taming of the Shrew by Sally Wainwright and A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Peter Bowker. Shrew is a problematic play at the best of times and I have to say that I found this interpretation to be very difficult. Katherine becomes an abrasive politician aiming to become Leader of the Opposition who is advised to get married for her image, Petruchio is a foppish aristocrat who has fallen on hard times and is attracted by her wealth. They meet, sparks fly and thus do battle whilst conducting their relationship. Initially it works, as he is just as mad as her – almost cartoonish in how mental they are – but the ‘taming’ that ensues only applies to her and so the unease feeling of misogyny is always too present. Shirley Henderson gives shrewish life to Katherine (sorry) and Rufus Sewell swaggers well as the cross-dressing Petruchio, but it never really flies as a revision.

The subplot involves her supermodel sister Bianca – Jaime Murray as she bats away the affections of her manager for the seductive allure of a Spanish stranger Lucentio. I have to say that Santiago Cabrera looks pretty much like perfection here, the sexiest glasses-wearer ever, and so is forgiven for the underwhelming way in which this subplot works. Stephen Tompkinson’s manager is oddly fobbed off with the mother – Twiggy of all people – but it does lead up to a nifty conclusion in which Katherine’s hard-to-swallow speech ends up being about prenuptial agreements. David Mitchell is also featured in this as Katherine’s aide, demonstrating just how little range the man has.

Continue reading “DVD Review: ShakespeaRe-Told – The Taming of the Shrew/A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Review: War Horse, New London Theatre

“Will you just shut up about your blimmin’ horse”

Those of you that know me, or have read a few reviews on here, will know that I have something of an aversion to puppets, specifically puppetry that tries to be realistic in its portrayal – Avenue Q’s fluffy monsters are fine in that respect – but something about the mimicry of ‘real life’ has never been something I have enjoyed watching and indeed freaks me out a little bit. Throw into the mix horses, an animal of which I am not keen, and it is perhaps unsurprising that I have never been to see War Horse. Nor had I ever intended to, but I made the mistake of saying that the only way I would go was if someone bought me a ticket for my birthday…and lo, guess what happened…

Adapted by Nick Stafford from Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book, War Horse has been one of the biggest theatrical success stories of recent years: originally playing at the National Theatre in 2007, then returning for a revival the next year and then transferring into the West End in March 2009 where it has become one of the best selling shows in town, a genuine fixture at the tucked-away New London Theatre where its success shows no signs of abating, especially in the reflected glow of its award-winning sister production on Broadway. Quite why this is, I have to say still eludes me having seen the show, I couldn’t tell you what the magic ingredient is in here that has led to its enduring achievements aside from offering one of the most overly sentimental theatrical experiences possible. Continue reading “Review: War Horse, New London Theatre”

Review: Judgment Day, Almeida

“The train is coming…”

Judgment Day is a play by Austro-Hungarian playwright Ödön von Horváth, which has been translated here at the Almeida theatre by Christoper Hampton. One of the first commissions after Michael Attenborough’s arrival as Artistic Director, Hampton has long been a champion of this writer and this is the first full production of this play in this country. Von Horváth wrote much of his anti-Nazi work in Germany in the 1930s, but opted to remain in the country to study the encroaching rise of Nazism, instead of fleeing like many of his compatriots such as Brecht.

It’s the story of Hudetz, a stationmaster of a small village who, distracted one evening by a popular local girl eager for a kiss, fails to make the necessary signal to a passing train causing a devastating fatal crash. The girl Anna then perjures herself to defend Hudetz as he seeks to escape justice, despite his unhappy wife also witnessing the events. We then see the effects of overwhelming grief on this pair as they struggle to carry on with their lives, exacerbated by the ever-changing moods of the townspeople, whose vicious, bigoted anger seems to be refocused with every new piece of gossip that comes their way. Continue reading “Review: Judgment Day, Almeida”

Review: A Matter of Life and Death, National Theatre

Based on a well respected (although I’d never heard of it, let alone seen it) film, A Matter of Life and Death sees Cornish theatre company Kneehigh take the cavernous Olivier theatre by storm with a highly inventive and physical reinterpretation of this story. Peter, a World War II pilot is shot down whilst on a mission but doesn’t die because the angel sent to collect him gets lost in the fog. Instead, he meets and falls in love with June, the radio operator who tried to help him down. Peter is then forced to plead his case in the court of Heaven to see how his future will play out.

As the romantic leads, both Tristan Sturrock as Peter and Lyndsey Marshal as June seemed a little overwhelmed by the production, not really able to give us much of a sense of the relationship between the two and too often required to do something gymnastic or wacky instead of focusing on the emotion of the moment. In the more light-hearted characters, like Douglas Hodge’s Frank and Gisli Örn Gardarsson’s gymnastic Conductor, there’s more freedom and opportunity for fun, but by and large this wasn’t a production about strong acting. Continue reading “Review: A Matter of Life and Death, National Theatre”