One way to review The Band would simply be to list the things that happen in it, like this:
- ‘Never Forget’ takes place in the duty free section of an airport.
- During ‘Relight My Fire’, the titular band rip off their clothes to reveal bondage harnesses. They don plumed helmets, a golden chariot is wheeled onstage, and they cavort with the sixteen-year-old girl characters. The number begins on a bus.
- Rachel Lumberg’s central character Rachel cries in her kitchen while the band close in around her, slowly, dressed for some reason in black parade jackets, singing.
- Rachel’s husband implies to her that her refusing to take him on a trip to Prague which she’s just won is the reason “why people like us don’t win competitions”, somehow.
- There is a flashback to a conversation we’ve seen five minutes ago.
- The great tragedy of one character’s life is that she’s become fat.
But that still doesn’t quite get across quite how bewildering it all is. I wouldn’t call myself a Mamma Mia! fan, but The Band really makes you appreciate what Mamma Mia! accomplishes.
This is the story of a group of young fans of “the band” (never referred to as Take That!, and portrayed as a great deal more ripped and better at dancing) and the way that their lives diverge then cross again, twenty-five years after seeing the band at a gig in Manchester and tragically losing one of their friends in an accident that same night. None of their futures have worked out exactly as planned for this group of friends who are as archetypal as Spice Girls, or characters on a kids’ TV show. Bookish Zoe (Jayne McKenna) has four children, to the overwhelming shock of the others. The ‘one who went with all the boys’ (Heather, played by Emily Joyce) has turned out to be a lesbian. Rachel has not married (which was her only dream as a schoolgirl) as her dead friend, Debbie, can’t be her bridesmaid as she once promised her. Claire (Alison Fitzjohn) has not made it to the Olympics as a diver: she’s now fat, which is the biggest of the changes her friends can’t get over. All of these developments are, for some reason, gobsmackingly surprising to them, but someone putting on weight after twenty-five years is the most beyond belief, and prompts endless, endless jokes.
A note of accidental eldritch horror is almost struck by the band’s presence in the show both as a real, successful, reuniting boyband, and as the population of Rachel’s inner life: “I grew up with a boyband,” she explains. My companion on the night was reduced to a giggling mess by these boys’ habit of incessantly popping out of lockers, transforming into a fountain’s statues, or ripping off their costumes as flight attendants and bus bystanders serenade her and get their groove on. “Louder, boys!” she gleefully shouts. They’re everywhere.
That these actors (A. J. Bentley, Nick Carsberg, Curtis T Johns, Yazdan Qafouri and Sario Solomon) won a televised competition for these parts, which are essentially of a chorus, takes a while to sink in. They are, in effect, more the set than the rather anonymous set itself, a series of screens onto which unimaginative projections appear: flowers themed around a memory of a conversation which takes place about five minutes earlier in the show, for instance. Take That!’s numbers (some of which are absolute pop classics which we should be absolutely slapped in the face with, as per Mamma Mia!) are unceremoniously dumped into the narrative at the strangest points. Why begin with ‘Pray’ in Rachel’s bedroom, when we’re only just meeting the characters, and getting over the staggering appearance of the band from her wardrobe and seeing them help her shower?
It’s all a baffling shame: from the patronising dialogue to script writer Tim Firth’s reductive approach to the female cast. This is a woman-focused musical, and about unglamorous, normal women, too, but Firth appears to have so little respect for them, their bodies, their fandom, their desires, the way they talk. This is no tribute to teenage girls or friendship, and it’s not much of a tribute to Take That!, either.
The Band is on at Theatre Royal Haymarket until 12th January 2019. More info here.