The red carpet is rolled outside Cardiff’s Millennium Centre as if a procession of A-listers are about to swank out of a stretch limo. It’s the first night of Never Forget, the ‘new musical based on the songs of Take That’, and expectations are high. Two minutes from curtain up, there may not be a celebrity in sight, but the civilians mill about it anyway, make-believing the carpet’s actually been put there or them. Which, given that Never Forget is a jukebox musical about a bunch of back-street Manchester lads desperate to make the big time, is how it should be. Especially as Never Forget isn’t about Take That at all, but actually charts the rise and fall of that glorious post-modern concept, a Take That tribute band.
Inside the hall, the atmosphere is somewhere between a giant hen night and gay Mardis Gras. The girls all look like would-be WAGs, the boys like ex teeny-bopper idols. Onstage, the fake brick façade that covers the stage curtain looks more bronzed than Coronation Street red. The story it opens us up to is an equally heightened depiction of the every-day, in which struggling singer Ash auditions with his fiancé Chloe’s brother Jake for a Take That tribute band set up by low-rent impresario Ron. With a geeky bank-manager, a dim-witted stripper and a mother-fixated Spaniard also on board, Never Forget is a familiar tale of pop failure, taking in dodgy management, bad gigs, sexually predatory record company types and every showbiz cliché in the book. But it works.
Much of this may be down to Take That’s fan-base jumping at the opportunity to hear some of the most crafted mainstream pop songs ever written. Without Danny Brocklehurst’s equally commercial script, however, Never Forget would be just one more thinly strung-together piece of legitimised nostalgia.
Brocklehurst made his name writing episodes of Shameless and Clocking Off, both perfect examples of how grim up north gritty realism can work as feelgood struggles with the everyday. In terms of this common touch, Brocklehurst is following in the footsteps of the holy trinity of popular drama, John Godber, Willy Russell and Debbie Horsfield. Never Forget also takes its moves from the spate of soft-centred 1990s Brit flicks set in ravaged working class communities, where hope is reborn by some mould-breaking display of self-expression. The Full Monty, Billy Elliot and Brassed Off all put deprived northern English towns on the map. Set to Gary Barlow’s words and music, Never Forget’s reflection of ordinary lives is pumped up to heroic status.
“It’s unpretentious,” says co-producer Bronia Buchanan the following day, keen to stress Never Forget’s fun side to the point of sporting a Never Forget baseball cap and having the song as her mobile phone ring-tone. “Anyone can come and see this show and have a great time, and everyone involved is totally committed to that. We all love Take That and their music, but the show isn’t really doing anything important beyond telling the story.”
It does, though, touch peoples lives. Like the young woman at the Friday matinee, who during break-up anthem Back For Good, rushes misty-eyed for the toilet, closely followed by her friend. Buchanan herself observed the sentimental power of it the night before.
“There was a little girl in the interval crying her eyes out,” she says. “I went up to her and asked what was wrong, and she said, ‘they’ve split up. They’ll never get married now. So I bought her an ice-cream and told her that by the time she finished it she’d be smiling.’”
Never Forget has been a labour of love for Buchanan and co-producer Tristan Baker since they first thought of the idea three years ago. Gradually bringing in a crack squad of Brocklehurst, director Ed Curtis and choreographer Karen Bruce, Buchanan and Baker licensed Take That’s back catalogue from record label EMI for use in the show.
When Take That reformed in 2006, effectively becoming their own tribute act, a notice on their website declared that ‘The band would like to state categorically that this production is being undertaken with neither their involvement nor their endorsement. They would wish their fans and the general public to know that this production is absolutely and 100% nothing to do with Take That.’
“We love Take That,” Buchanan says of the band she first swooned to when she was 12 years old, “and we believe that if they saw it they’d love it and would understand that we’re being faithful to their material. Of course, we’d much rather have them on side, but we can’t force them to be, and, you know, that’s show-business.”
For once, the cliché is all too appropriate. Because, as much as Never Forget is Ash and Chloe’s story, it’s also the story of British pop, manufactured or otherwise. This is displayed most through Ron, the little man manager with the big mouth. Like Tutti Frutti’s Eddie Clockarty, Ron is dodginess personified. Crucially, he understands how the past sells. So when Ron talks of his new charges re-creating the mid-1990s, a time when his inspiration ruled the world as a “leather-clad, cod-piece wearing, body-lotion covered colossus,” he recognises how the Cool Britannia days of old have become today’s cabaret turn.
This makes even more sense when you realise that the third producer of Never Forget, and a major investor of the show, is Charlie Parsons. Along with Bob Geldof, Parsons was the founder of Planet 24, who gave the world The Word, The Big Breakfast, Chris Evans, Denise Van Outen and a whole lot of others who would become the era’s light entertainment elite. Take That’s first ever TV interview was on one of Parsons’ shows. By putting their songs into their natural arena of a stage musical, Never Forget makes blindingly obvious how show-business in this country works.
For Dean, Craige, Tim, Eaton and Stephane, who were only hired two months ago to play Ash, Jake, Adrian, Harry and Jose, aka Gary, Robbie, Mark, Howard and Jason, the attention Never Forget has already brought them, from features in Heat magazine to a documentary series on the making of the show which airs next week , is a tad bewildering. Which may be why there’s such a strong and instantly likeable gang mentality between these five focussed young veterans of the commercial stage.
“There were girls crying,” says Stephane Anelli, sounding slightly horrified.
“It’s really weird,” says the extremely tall Craige Els, “because you’re just doing your job so you don’t know how to react.”
Only Tim Drieson, who was runner-up in Belgium’s version of Pop Idol, is living the dream. “I’ve wanted to be in a boy band for years, so I’m absolutely loving it.”
“At the end of the day,” says Dean Chisnall, already looking every inch a pin-up, “we’re just actors playing a part, and we’ve got a great script and a brilliant company, so it’s an absolute joy to do.”
Beyond such profile-raising attention, there are moments in Never Forget where all involved can’t help but become pop stars. The stagings of Relight My Fire, the pole-dance fantasy of Once You’ve Tasted Love, and the engagement party fiesta of It Only Takes A Minute, are lavish and vibrant enough to upstage a real life boy-band arena spectacular.
With its kids choir and all the trimmings, the reconciliation scene finale pushes every emotionally manipulative button going. As Never Forget’s triumphal title song rings out, it’s revealed as a work of art that’s both reflective and celebratory. The show’s message, of marrying the girl next door and not getting too uppity, may be deeply reactionary, but just for a minute, you’ll really believe there’s such a thing as harmless entertainment.
‘Never forget where you’ve come here from,’ it says. ‘Never pretend that it’s real/Someday soon this will all be someone else’s dream/This will be someone else’s dream.’
Something to remember, then, on every level.
Never Forget, Kings Theatre, Glasgow, August 8-18; Edinburgh Playhouse, September 18-22
The Herald, August 2007