Milton Keynes Theatre
3rd July 2023
The love between a teenage girl and her favourite boyband is a powerful thing, and the 90s saw this perhaps more strongly than any other decade. Leading the pack at the time was Take That, one of the most successful boybands of all time, and their faces adorned many a bedroom wall. Their impressive back catalogue has been brought to the stage before, in the ironically-named ‘Never Forget’ which failed to make much of an impression despite the best efforts of a pre-Valjean Dean Chisnall. Another attempt was made in 2017, through the launch of reality TV show ‘The Band’, which searched for 5 young men to appear in a new musical performing the songs of Take That as a backdrop to a story of a group of women reuniting after 25 years. Proving that musicals are ever-evolving, the show is back once again, now entitled ‘Greatest Days’, and running at Milton Keynes Theatre this week as part of its UK tour.
A group of five close-knit schoolgirls (played by Emilie Cunliffe, Hannah Brown, Mari McGinlay, Kitty Harris and Mary Moore) spend their days in 1993 obsessing over their favourite boyband and jump at the chance to see their beloveds live in concert. Missing their last bus back, the group face a long walk home, stopping en-route to imagine how their lives are going to unfold, and swearing to never lose touch. A tragic accident shatters the group, and the story revisits them 25 years later when one of the group wins tickets to the boyband’s reunion tour. The women try to reconnect, but revisiting their shared history and lamenting losing one of their group proves more painful than they imagined.
This third iteration of a Take That musical has a lot going for it, but it still feels like there’s a better show to be made from the creatives behind it. Directed this time by Tim Firth and Stacey Haynes, it’s certainly stronger than ‘Never Forget’, but remains firmly in the same territory as ‘Mamma Mia’, with shoehorned songs taking priority over character and story. In fairness, our characters here are more strongly defined than ‘Mamma Mia’s two-dimensional archetypes, and do hit some real emotional beats, particularly in the second half. Firth’s book is a little slight and predictable but does have some good one-liners thrown in, especially for the grown-up Heather and Claire. Take That fans will be happy with the selection of hits being performed, and probably won’t care that they don’t fit the story in the slightest (the positioning of “Shine” and “Relight My Fire” in particularly making literally no sense). But Gary Barlow certainly knows his way around a good song, and the strength of the music often makes up for most other shortcomings. Aaron Renfree’s choreography- is impressive and performed well by the boyband, while Lucy Osborne’s set is functional rather than exciting, and having it remain largely the same throughout the show does feel a little lazy and lacking in production value.
The cast as a whole do a great job, and arguably they’re stronger than the material, helping to elevate it to feel more substantial. It’s also been cast really well, with the younger- and older-portrayals of the characters feeling very aligned. All of the young-versions are likeable and vibrant, bouncing well off each other’s energy, and their older counterparts continue this on, while effectively weaving in the weightier material. Rachel Marwood (Heather) and Jamie-Rose Monk (Claire) are the standouts, Marwood for her sharp-tongued retorts and Monk for her heartbreaking retelling of why Claire stopped diving. Corrie’s Kym Marsh also does well as Rachel and shows her natural skills as an actress, although it’s a shame we don’t really get to hear her sing on her own. Having Marsh’s real-life daughter Emilie playing the younger-version of Rachel is a masterstroke, adding real believability to the performances and also a really touching element when all of the characters perform “Back For Good” in a standout scene later on; both versions of each character lean longingly on the other as they sing, and it really conveys who these women have become while reminding us of who they once were. The boyband also look great and dance well, but are very much background ghosts who underscore the women’s story rather than making any real impact themselves.
‘Greatest Days’ sits comfortably in the “good, but could be great” category, and feels like if the script could weave the songs in more cleverly rather than clumsily, it could become something that its potential suggests. Still, there will be a significant chunk of the audience who really won’t care, they just want to have a good time dancing down Memory Lane with rose-tinted nostalgia glasses on, and that’s absolutely fine too.
‘Greatest Days’ runs at the Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 8th July 2023 before continuing its UK tour.
Performance runtime 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.
Cast note – Kym Marsh is scheduled to perform as Rachel until 22nd July and 15-19th August. Jennifer Ellison will take over the role from 21st August through to 18th November.