Review: Greatest Days at Liverpool Empire ****
When Gary Barlow first approached his old mate Tim Firth – Frodsham’s other famous son – about penning a Take That musical, Firth was sceptical.
But then the Whiston-born stage and screen writer had an epiphany, and instead of making ‘the band’ the centre of the story, he turned his spotlight on their fans instead in a tale which puts friendship at its heart.
Lo, The Band was born, and five years ago the musical, jam packed with irresistible Take That bangers and ballads, arrived on the Empire stage as part of an inaugural UK tour.
Now it’s back, freshly titled as Greatest Days and coinciding with a film version which went on release last month.
For the show’s central cast of female friends, those ‘greatest days’ were the early 1990s when they were teenage fans of a fresh-faced boy band (never named) – forging what they imagined were unbreakable bonds through their love of the men, the music and the tightly-drilled dance moves. The ‘band’ are both their confidantes and the soundtrack to their lives.
The ringleader of the high-spirited teens is Mary Moore’s effervescent Debbie, who wins a competition for them all to see the band live at the Manchester Apollo.
Above: Hannah Brown (Zoe), Mary Moore (Debbie), Rachel (Emilie Cunliffe), Kitty Harris (Heather) and Mari McGinley. Top: The cast of Greatest Days. Photos by Alastair Muir.
What happens that night changes their lives forever, but not necessarily in the way they could have imagined.
And 25 years on, when the band reforms, another competition gives the now 40-somethings a chance to reform too, although the starry-eyed optimists of 1993 are carrying quarter of a century of baggage with them.
It’s a story a lot of us can relate to – inside nearly every middle-aged woman is a teenage girl going “bloody hell! What happened?”
Life is the answer, as Rachel (Kym Marsh), Heather (Rachel Marwood), Claire (Jamie-Rose Monk) and Zoe (Holly Ashton) discover in a madcap jaunt to Athens to watch the band perform, despite the incomprehension of Rachel’s partner Jeff (a hugely enjoyable turn from Christopher D Hunt).
The past and present bleed in and out, sometimes appearing concurrently, as the friends experience both euphoria and heartache, and ultimately find understanding and acceptance.
Greatest Days is warm, affectionate and life-affirming, if occasionally a bit twee.
Above: Kym Marsh as older Rachel and Emilie Cunliffe as younger Rachel. Phot by Alastair Muir.
Jukebox musical it may be, but this is one with a superlative soundtrack – and it only really scratches the surface of the Take That catalogue, although lots of the biggest hits are there, Relight My Fire, A Million Love Songs, Never Forget, Back for Good and (my favourite) Shine among them.
They’re predominately performed by the five talented young actors who play the ‘band’ in a mixture of set piece gig scenes – chapeau to Rob Casey’s lighting design for the Athens concert – and Greek Chorus-style commentary on the girls’ lives, and are delivered with close harmonies and impressively snappy dance moves courtesy of choreographer Aaron Renfree.
The band also physically manipulate Lucy Osborne’s Jenga-style set into seats, rocks, flights of stairs and a Greek fountain - in which they become the statues too.
But the girls (including Marsh’s daughter Emilie Cunliffe who plays the teenage Rachel) and the women also get their chance to sing their own resonant story.
“We were girls of 16 and we were fantastic – and we still are,” says Marsh’s Rachel in the closing minutes, something perhaps we should all occasionally remember.