I blame Abba. Or perhaps Buddy Holly. Ben Elton’s definitely getting some of it as well. Ever since some bright spark had the idea of mixing well known pop music with stage musicals, the hen weekend market suddenly found a whole host of new options. There’s definitely blame in there somewhere, because gosh darn it, we live in a blame society and I want to blame somebody for Never Forget – otherwise known as the Take That musical.
This type of theatre is something I’d normally sprint across hot coals to avoid but the offer of free tickets and the odd idea that I should really try to step out of my comfort zone on occasions and perhaps try something I’d normally turn my nose up at led me to the Savoy Theatre on a Friday evening.
As with a first date that’s not going well, let’s get the niceties out of the way first. Never Forget is by no means awful. There’s a lot of energy, some nice 90s boyband jokes (“at the moment you lot aren’t even 911”), and it has some genuinely funny moments. It’s certainly passable if you’re the target audience. Sadly, I’m not really the target audience and if it wants to achieve the success it needs to somehow transcend the hen-weekend audience.
And that hen-weekend appeal is also part of the problem. There’s so many shows like this on the market that the script and show need to sparkle. It can be as ropey, plot-wise, as it likes as long as you get a chance to completely immerse yourself in the world.
The are weird elements that don’t quite sit with each other. The Manchester setting makes you feel like you’re watching a hyper-real episode of Corrie on occasions. There’s also plenty of references to chavs, the tribute band circuit, tacky clubs and the general awfulness of working class nightlife, but it pales in comparison to, say, Benidorm, which is much more sharply observed in this area. And the Northern tribute act storyline was done so much better in the wonderful Little Voice, while the Full Monty also looms in the background. It pulls in all of these elements but only serves to remind you how good some of these possible inspirations are.
So Never Forget falls back on the songs, and while the best-known Take That songs will always get the audience clapping in the aisles, weirdly it’s like you’re watching a poor Take That tribute band trying too hard, and at this point postmodernist theory probably gets a very bad headache and decides to decamp to the pub for a pint and a packet of crisps to try and work out what the hell its just seen.
It might be a bit cheaper and easier to get to than watching the real Take That live but then there are also plenty of decent tribute bands doing the circuit that are a lot cheaper, which leads to a question that should trouble all productions of a similar ilk: just what has Never Forget – or similar shows – got that the alternatives haven’t?
It’s a problem that really seems to afflict any kind of entertainment package – be it theatre, music, film, or TV – that attempts to leap onto another medium. It just jars badly outside of its natural habitat because we’re too familiar with the original source material.
Never Forget might have worked better on screen than stage. After all, there are plenty of classic musicals than have storylines that could easily be grouped with it – A Star Is Born and Singing In The Rain spring to mind – and in the hands of somebody like Busby Berkeley or Vincente Minelli it could have been a visual treat on celluloid. Even Scorsese’s Happy Endings, the spoof musical within his New York New York, worked far better than these kind of shows.
It’s a bit of a two way process though. Chicago has been one of the best musical adaptations for the big screen in recent years but even that felt far too stagebound. Sweeny Todd did a decent job, largely because it had the unmistakable feel of a Tim Burton film and an excellent cast. The Producers, however, just felt like a stage performance on the screen and was a pale imitation of the original source material.
With the exception of The Producers, though, these films feel like somebody has put effort in. Something like Never Forget, and to a certain extent forerunners like We Will Rock You, feels lazy – like bolting on whatever they can find to something that’s already popular, safe in the knowledge there’s a decent enough fanbase out there who’ll come and see it regardless of what kind of job has been done. Grease may be a cheese-fest but its light years ahead compared to today’s current new musicals, both on stage and screen.
With all this lazy-musical love in, you’d think audiences would be prepared to tolerate more musicals on the big screen, but Sweeny Todd seems to indicate otherwise, and other forays into this genre have been largely disappointing.
Still, there’s no doubt money to be made from this. Got a successful film that involves a bit of dancing (“Billy Elliot”) – make it into a musical. Got a popular culture figure (Beckham)? Make a musical around it. It almost feels that, in this day and age, if you were to propose Brass Eye’s Sutcliffe: The Musical somebody would snap it up.
With that in mind, I’m proposing a musical built around The Smiths & Morrissey. Given real-life events, it’d probably be called We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful and the big love number would probably be You’re The One For Me, Fatty, Bigmouth Strikes Again or Girlfriend in a Coma. I’ve no idea what the plot would be, but it’d be as anti-musical as you could get, yet still be a music. Panic! would obviously be the choice of music for the obligatory nightclub scene, while Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now and How Soon Is Now were built for those lonely solo numbers. In fact, much of the show could be made up of lonely solo numbers. The final song would have to be There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.
I’m not quite sure how I’d work Meat Is Murder into it, but I’d like to think La Mozzfather himself would raise a wry smile. Now, who wants to be a Max Bialystock and invest in this?