To describe a musical based around the songs of pop group Take That as too cheesy would be missing the point somewhat, akin to describing Sweeney Todd as overly gruesome or Joseph as too multicoloured. This is a show that revels in the tackiness and excess of early nineties pop, completely aware that it will be delighting its target audience as it does so.
What comes as a surprise is the quality of the script. Written by theatre and TV script writer Danny Brocklehurst with director Ed Curtis and Guy Jones, for the most part the story of five lads who group together to form a Take That tribute band is played for laughs. Jokes come thick and fast in the first act, with moments of slapstick and absurdity played at just the right level to prevent the whole enterprise from descending into a panto-style knockabout.
Unfortunately, the more dramatic thread – the pressures on lead singer Ash, played by Dean Chisnall, to leave the band and take up with record company scout Annie (Joanne Farrell), to the wrath of fiancee Chloe – is handled less well, achieving levels of sub-Hollyoaks melodrama that Brocklehurst avoids in his own TV work. It doesn’t help that Chisnall is the least charismatic of the five group members. Every time he is on stage alone, one yearns for his four bandmates to return to bring some life back into proceedings. Farrell is hopelessly out of her depth as an underwritten femme fatale. Audience members were content to welcome every onstage appearance with panto-level boos and hisses, but it’s an appreciation that neither the character nor the performance deserves.
Vocally, the star of the show is Sophia Ragavelas as Chloe, the classic wronged woman. Her gut-wrenching performance of Love Ain’t Here Anymore is the standout moment of the show, with a delivery so powerful it stunned the raucous audience of Take That fans into complete silence for possibly the only time in the entire show.
There are also some superb performances from the large company of dancers. While the accompaniment to many staged Take That numbers is as reminiscent of eighties TV light entertainment spectaculars as it is the excess of the original group’s own stage shows, a number of sequences, tightly choreographed by Karen Bruce, show their abilities off to full effect. Most notable is a sequence set in a Manchester salsa bar, which clearly references similar sequences in better musicals, including the Mambo from West Side Story. It’s an audacious move and one which the production just about manages to pull off.
Ultimately, the audience for this show is always going to be dominated by fans of Take That’s original music catalogue, but there’s enough substance in here for others to enjoy too. This is a musical that knows exactly what it is, makes no apologies, and goes out with a great big smile on its face. It may be camp nonsense, but it’s self-aware – there’s full knowledge that the rain machine at the end of the first act will get the biggest applause of the evening, and everyone is perfectly happy to play along.
Reviewed for The Stage