Saturday, September 29, 2007

So it's come to this.

It's Friday 21 September, and Susi and I are in the balcony of the Edinburgh Playhouse. I can't help but wonder what the hell I'm doing here.

I am not in the target audience for this show. I can tell. The theatre is full, and the audience is about 97% female. And not only are they women, but they are women in packs. Clearly, the husbands and boyfriends of Edinburgh have, en masse, made it clear that no, they will not come and see this show.

I am either a very good boyfriend or a complete sucker.

Because we are here to watch Never Forget - the all-new stage musical based on the songs of early 90s boyband Take That.

Who the hell thought this was a good idea? There have been a spate of these things in recent years. It seemed questionable when they did it with Abba and Queen. There was one based on Pet Shop Boys songs on the Fringe this year, which I could just about imagine working, since they were heavily influenced by musicals in the first place. I haven't seen any of them. But it doesn't exactly sound like a winning formula, cobbling together a musical out of pre-existing, unrelated songs. And that's when you're dealing with A-list songwriters.

But Take That? Really?

Actually, I'm being too negative. After all, within their genre, Take That were about as good as it got. Formed as a vehicle for songwriter Gary Barlow, they ended up accidentally launching the career of Robbie Williams instead. But Barlow was a good pop songwriter, and he still is. Reading through their discography on Wikipedia, there's some good stuff in there. "Relight My Fire" certainly holds up well for a boy band single that came out 14 years ago.

"Back for Good" is a legitimately good track that still gets played on merit rather than for pure nostalgia. "A Million Love Songs" was a half-decent ballad beneath its cheesy arrangement. Their version of "Could It Be Magic" was, well, about as good as a Barry Manilow cover is going to get, and the video includes a girl I knew at school. (She's the one in the red dress, and we starred opposite one another in a school production of the Mikado, of which all videos have hopefully been destroyed.)

"Never Forget", transparently intended as an epilogue to their career, became a fabulous pop epic by the time Jim Steinman had finished adding children's choirs to it. And while their final single was a banal cover version of the Bee Gees' "How Deep Is Your Love", a bizarrely sinister video twisted it into a cryptic commentary about the fans, which could only ever have been approved by a band who'd mentally thrown in the towel. Robbie Williams, who had already quit by this point, described it as his favourite Take That video, and I'm sure he meant it. On many levels.

None of these records could exactly be described as credible, let alone fashionable. And yes, they released a lot of junk too. But there will always be a market for boy bands of some sort, and at least when Take That were around, they generally did it well. Put them next to Boyzone or Westlife, who were just bland, plastic balladeers, and the quality gap is huge.

Nonetheless, when you're making a musical based on Take That, it's not like making a musical based on Abba. Abba are a band that adults listen to; Take That are a band that the audience, almost entirely women in their late twenties, remember loving when they were thirteen. And while they still genuinely love the songs, they also know that there's something very silly about this whole idea. That's why they're here. The ridiculousness is exactly what sounds like fun.

As it happens, the writers feel the same way. What they've produced is a bit like a sanitised episode of Shameless with added nineties pop music. It's a feelgood show with enough self-awareness not to take itself seriously, but not so much as to drown in irony. It's... you know, it's actually pretty entertaining.

The plot involves Ash, an aspiring Mancunian singer who hopes to make it big when, implausibly but inevitably, he joins a Take That tribute band. But will he stand by his motley crew of dubious impersonators, or will he turn his back on family and friends to pursue the chance of solo stardom?

We all know exactly where it's going from the word go, and that's precisely the way the audience likes it. Nobody came here for dramatic weight; what they want is some Take That songs (which they get), some decent comedy (which they also get), and a familiar plot to hang them on. It doesn't take the crowd long to decide that this is a pantomime and that they are going to cheer and boo every character with the sort of enthusiasm not usually seen this side of Wrestlemania.

Roughly half of the second act is really just a Take That tribute concert. This works just fine, because the show's done enough to make us want to see the band succeed, and it's earned the right to just run through a few songs in full. Besides, "Relight My Fire" is a good production number when you do it right.

Never Forget is a show with absolutely no pretensions to be anything more than it is. Instead of trying to be clever, it's put all its effort into trying to be funny and into trying to make the songs work on stage. That's not to say that the show has no subtlety; it's smart enough to know that a moment of personal dilemma soundtracked by a minor-key version of the band's excruciating gay-club-targetted pre-fame single "Do What U Like" is just funny, that the joke doesn't need to be explained, and that it simply has to be played straight. But fundamentally, it just wants to entertain, it knows exactly how seriously it's going to be taken, and it pitches itself accordingly.

I don't think I've ever seen a theatre audience who were more into a show. It needs to be seen with an enthusiastic crowd; it's been designed as the focal point of a night out, not as a story. It's not something you'd want to see several times. But as a piece of pop theatre, it actually works, as much on the strength of the audience participation as anything else. Purists hate this sort of show, but anything that gets this much reaction is a persuasive illustration of the theatre as a living medium. It knows what its audience wants, and it delivers on it. You can't really expect anything more from a Take That musical, can you?

Oh, and a footnote. Strictly speaking, "How Deep Is Your Love" wasn't really their last single, because they re-formed last year and released a whole new album which actually sold well. None of that stuff is in the show, and it wouldn't fit anyway. Although "Shine" is quite good, isn't it...?