Review: The Band, Manchester Opera House

Five to Five doing their version of The Flood in The Band.
Five to Five doing their version of The Flood in The Band.
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For those allergic to whooping (there must be some, it is possible to be allergic to most things these days) The Band is probably best avoided. From the opening number to the final curtain, the audience can barely contain themselves. And it’s not just whooping. They boo, they cheer and they aren’t afraid to whip out their phones to do a few pictures during the big numbers.

It’s all a bit panto-esque, but feverish reception aside, this new musical devised by Take That and Tim Firth is thankfully blessed with heart, soul and some of the finest pop songs ever written.

While the name of Take That is never uttered once, the band is everywhere. It is there in the music, which runs the gamut from Could it Be Magic to Greatest Day and it there in the shape of Five to Five who arrived on stage via the BBC talent show Let It Shine.

Put aside any negative thoughts that this is a throwaway jukebox musical. Like Gary Barlow and Firth’s first collaboration Girls, inspired by the Yorkshire WI who stripped off for charity, this is a show about female friendship. It’s also about the fragility of teenage dreams, getting older and hankering over those days when the biggest dilemma was which popstar you were going to marry.

It begins in September 1993. As the giant Ceefax screen reminds us that was when Barlow and Co were at number one with Pray. It was also when the Maastricht Treaty was signed and when Bill Clinton had just been sworn in as US president. Ah happy days.

For a group of school friends living in the shadow of the North West’s chemical plants it was also a time of hope and opportunity. The five are unapologetically stereotypes. There’s the bookish one, the fat one, the sporty one, the trashy one and the blissfully optimistic one. They could have been Widnes’s answer to the Spice Girls and are all beautifully played by the young cast, particularly Katy Clayton as the boy-hungry Heather. What unites - and ultimately divides them - is their love of a boy band which soothes even the worst case of teenage angst. Fast forward to the present day and the girls, now 40-somethings, are once again reunited through the music and forced to confront the past and the fact that life didn’t turn out how any of them had planned.

It could have all descended in a large slice of schmaltz, but Firth knows how to do one liners which undercut any sentimentalism.

As for Five to Five, Barlow and Firth have taken the shrewd move of putting them in the background, which limits any real need for them to flex their acting muscles. They have their big moments though, not least in a rousing rendition of Flood, and emerge as the glue that holds the whole thing together - only the hardest of hearts will be able to watch A Million Love Songs reimagined as a love letter to our younger selves without having to admit there is something in their eye.

Firth and Barlow haven’t reached the heights of a Lloyd Webber and Rice - there is something a little flimsy about the tale - but The Band is a good night out and much like Take That it seems destined to be much more than a one hit wonder.

The Band will be at Sheffield’s Lyceum Theatrem, Oct 4 to 14, Bradford Alhambra, Oct 17 to 28 with dates in Leeds and Hull next year.

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