Take That and Tim Firth
Palace Theatre Manchester
May 16-27, 2023; 2 hrs 15 mins
(also Theatre Royal Newcastle, May 29- June 3; Sheffield Lyceum, June 12-17; Liverpool Empire, July 10-15; Blackpool Opera House, August 15-19; Bradford Alhambra, September 18-23; Hull New Theatre, October 30 -November 4; Sunderland Empire, November 14-18; Grand Theatre Leeds, November 21-25)
A theatre of Take That fans, largely middle-aged women, we come in to a sparse set of hanging washing, and immediately people are struck by the domesticity and lack of sparkle. "Maybe", said the woman next to me, "it’s supposed to be like that"...
It is, and Tim Firth’s vision for Greatest Days is that it’s not really about "the band", but about the most important people in the picture, the fans.
We’re quickly taken back to the outskirts of Manchester in 1993, where a group of teenage girls are planning their escape from school and their fibs to parents to attend the gig of their lives – the band at the Manchester Apollo. There’s drama of course: teenage bickering, missed trains and a grumpy bus driver. And the while the megalithic stone set is cleverly designed to accommodate a suburban semi, a school hall, a concert venue or two, airports and a pile of rocks, the bus is improvised out of stage blocks, and later a cascading fabric curtain stands in for a fountain.
If there’s a whiff of GCSE drama about the whole business, it’s an A* for sure, and as my neighbour in the stalls asserted, of course it is meant to be like that. The tone is set. We’re invested in the teenagers we used to be and the women they become.
Our characters experience tragedy, grow up, and the story is largely filling in the gaps between their 16-year-old and 41-year-old selves. What became of them? Were their ambitions fulfilled? What happened to all of us along the way?
It’s a tale of love and loss, of finding wholeness and redemption. And while a band of nameless beautiful boys decorate the stage and perform – even on occasion as Greek statues, one of whose penis gets accidentally snapped off (and there’s a Freudian metaphor for you), the story belongs to the girls and the women.
Kym Marsh and her daughter Emilie Cunliffe star as Rachel and are outstanding, as are the rest of the female cast, young and old. And if the band members were cast for their moves, their abs and their backflips rather than their voices, then there’s something to be said about the authenticity of the boy-band format right there...
There are wonderful moments, and it’s so clever. At one point the girls ask "does the band have a song for moments like this?" with a deflating "no" the response. And we move on with an ironic, self-aware jukebox musical nod. In later life, at a similar moment, they ask again, and (our band, in real life, having reformed and expanded the catalogue) the answer is "yes" and we get a heartfelt rendition of Rule the World.
Elsewhere, in a moment that seems almost informed by a psychological model of transactional analysis, one by one the younger girls enter and comfort their later selves as they all sing Want You Back. It’s hard to hold back the tears. I don’t think many of us succeeded.
The movie trailers are already out and it’s set for release next month. Meanwhile the stage tour goes on. It’s not derivative, though ideas are occasionally borrowed from Mamma Mia. But if the stories of women’s lives, set to incredible songs (and a nod to Gary Barlow for much of the songwriting magic) are working for us, then let’s tell another one. And this show does so incredibly well.
We need to keep making shows like this. Because that’s the thing that nobody tells you about teenage girls and middle-aged women and the thing that we all need to hear: we can rule the world.
More info and tickets here