How Take That's boyband musical won me over on Milton Keynes stage

AJ Bentley, Curtis T Johns, Sario Solomon, Nick Carsberg and Yazdan Qafouri in The Band. Picture: Matt Crockett
AJ Bentley, Curtis T Johns, Sario Solomon, Nick Carsberg and Yazdan Qafouri in The Band. Picture: Matt Crockett

Alan Wooding reviews The Band at Milton Keynes Theatre

I wasn't too sure whether I really wanted to review another jukebox-style musical, but as my two daughters are ardent Take That fans and have been looking forward to The Band coming to Milton Keynes Theatre, I decided to give it a go.

Admittedly I like Take That's more recent songs and while I was aware The Band is not actually their life story, as someone who grew up in the 1960s listening to the likes of Cliff and the Shadows, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and in the '70s, Dire Straits and Queen, a 'band' to me is a group who actually play their own instruments, not a quintet of youngsters who just dance and sing!

But The Band seems to transcend that and, with a cast of talented youngsters (and some not so young!), I thoroughly enjoyed the whole concept – a decent storyline, great vocals and a fantastic imaginative set.

It was Andrew Lloyd Webber who came up with the idea of a reality television show back in 2006 in his quest to find a talented newcomer to take the starring role of Maria in his West End production of The Sound of Music.

Take That star Gary Barlow used the same format in 2017 in Let It Shine – another reality television show – to enable him to select five boys to head up The Band which opened for a six-day run in Milton Keynes Theatre last night (Tuesday).

The Band writer Tim Firth and TT's songster Gary Barlow were delighted with their original choice of AJ Bentley, Harry Brown, Curtis T Johns, Yazdan Qafouri and Sario Soloman who stormed onto the Manchester Opera House stage to mixed reviews on 26 September 2017 against a soundtrack of Take That hits.

For the current tour, Harry Brown is now an understudy having been replaced by Nick Carsberg, and while the show isn't directly about Take That or the boys, it centres instead on five adolescence schoolgirls back in 1993 and their love of The Band – and latterly it features just four girls being reunited more than two decades later in their 40s after a tragic accident cost one of them her life.

Sixteen-year-old Rachel (Faye Christall) and her best friend Debbie Thomas (Rachelle Diedericks) are obsessed with their idols, and after Debbie wins a radio competition to see the group in concert, they are joined by three friends – an over-the-top Heather (Katy Clayton), school swat Zoe (Lauren Jacobs) and wannabe Olympic diver Claire (Sarah Kate Howarth).

Having attended the concert Biytogether, a bond is formed but over the years due to various circumstances, they drift apart until 25 years on, they get to meet up once again following another radio competition. This time it's won by Rachel (now played by Rachel Lumberg) and they get to jet off from Manchester Airport to the Czech Republic for another concert featuring The Band in Prague.

I particularly liked Katy Clayton as a flamboyant young Heather and Emily Joyce as a grown-up Heather, both delivering some cracking one liners. And as for the meeting at the airport ahead of their flight, mother-of-four Zoe (Jayne McKenna) who never got to university, lead character Rachel (Rachel Lumberg) and a now totally different Claire (Alison Fitzjohn), set off on an adventure which sees them in trouble with the police and that causes them to miss the concert.

Throughout the show, Every Dave (played by a bearded Andy Williams) added loads of humour in his variety of characters – a bus driver, stage hand, Czech policeman, etc – while Rachel's long-time partner Jeff (Martin Miller) tries to comically woo her by reciting Take That lyrics!

However it's the lads of The Band who seem to ghost in from the wings almost unnoticed at every scenery change wearing different costumes which perfectly reflect Take That's transformation from a group of 1990s teenagers right up to the present day. Added to that, their voices blended perfectly as they performed Take That's back catalogue which naturally included Shine, Back For Good, Greatest Day and my personal favourite, Rule The World.

The clever set, superb projections and overall design created by Jon Bausor is particularly ambitious while the direction by choreographer Kim Gavin and Jack Ryder was magnificent, especially as there are so many scenery changes which saw the boys popping out from cupboards, wardrobes and even school lockers in their quick change costumes.

Writer Firth was responsible for the West End hit, The Girls – now called Calendar Girls: The Musical – and he's clearly come up trumps again with The Band judging by the audience's reaction - although I suspect at least half of the opening night's audience were Take That fans anyway!

Unfortunately there was a moment some 20 minute into the second act when something happened near the back of auditorium which meant the show was immediately halted for ten minutes while someone was removed. However the cast professionally continued where they had left off to a round of applause, although it meant there was a lot of muttering for the next few minutes.

With the Take That quartet of Gary Barlow, Howard Donald, Mark Owen and Robbie Williams all named as producers along with David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers, I must confess that The Band far exceeded what I was expecting and made for a thoroughly enjoyable foot-tapping evening at the theatre.

* The Band plays Milton Keynes Theatre until this coming Saturday (9 March) with performances each evening at 7.30pm and matinees at 2.30pm on Wednesday and Saturday. The only difference is Friday's special audio described show at 5pm plus a later one 8.30pm. For tickets call the Box Office on 0844 871 7652 (booking fees apply) or see online at www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes