Never Forget, the latest in a long line of musicals to give creative integrity a savage kicking by stringing together a few top-ten singles, tells the tale of five Manchester lads auditioning for parts in a Take That tribute band. There are one or two bits of plot tucked in here and there – something to do with a pub, and a woman who must be a bad lot because she’s wearing fishnets – but you needn’t trouble with them.
It was a curious evening, much of which I spent convulsed with laughter – never quite sure whether it was delight at the glorious pop that once rang through the house we sixth-formers used to escape General Studies, or disbelief at the atrocious script and am-dram performances.
Dean Chisnall and Sophie Ragavelas, in the lead roles of Ash ‘Gary Barlow’ Sherwood and his wholesome fiancee Chloe, are gifted singers and capable actors, but have absolutely no chemistry: I’ve seen sexier bowls of soup. As band agent Ron, Teddy Kempner – wearing a blue shirt with white collar and cuffs to signify his creepiness – beggared belief: his shameless mugging and capering was so wholly reminiscent of off-season comedy on Southend Pier I was briefly overcome by a desire for stale chips.
The remainder of the cast gave us a dutiful demonstration of the Six Key Gestures of Stage Acting. Craige Els as Jake Turner chose to evoke the randy blokeishness of Robbie Williams by keeping his groin aggressively thrust out at all times, apparently a solitary pint of Boddington’s away from dry-humping the footlights. Women in moments of distress dutifully pressed a trembling hand to the midriff, and speechless dismay was conveyed by that most useful of gestures, the outflung hand palm-downward.
Mindful for the wellbeing of the husbands and partners dragged along, the cast includes dancers of incandescent sexiness and outfits constructed from little more than spangled dental floss. I’m in no position to judge, being as much of a dancer as a Methodist with a trick hip, but good heavens: if that wasn’t choreography of the highest order I’ll eat my shoes.
There are one or two genuinely thrilling moments: at one point the sheets of rain pouring from the front of the stage parted like the Red Sea whenever the mournful ‘Gary Barlow’ character wandered in and out, and then (I still can’t quite believe I saw this) started to fall in perfect letters reading NEVER FORGET. But having blown 90% of the production budget on the weather, apparently around 3.10 remained. The scenery includes a pair of moveable screens serving as interior walls: they’re flimsy as loo-paper and appear to have been sponge-printed by a class of distracted four-year-olds.
All of which hardly matters, of course, since the songs are the point – the passages of drama between the music were a nuisance, as we were reminded how impossible it is to sit still during Relight My Fire or Could It Be Magic. Indeed, call me eternally teenaged, but anyone listening to A Million Love Songs without wanting to kiss someone impossible then cry for a week has steel cogs in place of a heart. The five ‘band members’ are unlikely to trouble any future RSC cast lists, but perform the songs with gleeful conviction, sometimes rather better than the original.
Take away the paint-by-numbers dialogue and sometimes catastrophic acting, and the singing and dancing absolutely hit the spot: we clapped till our hands ached, and I went to bed merry-hearted as I’d been at fifteen.