Brighton Year-Round 2023
It’s a one-stop night out to spot upcoming with established talent. Everything from costume-change to curtain-call is a kaleidoscope.
Tim Firth’s story might be sentimental, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But if he could have created a more compelling thread-through story for these five women, with all the talent and songs, it might have been something far more.
Greatest Days is written (book) and co-directed by Tim Firth and Stacey Haynes. Choreography Aaron Renfree, Set and Costumes by Lucy Osborne, Lighting Rob Casey, . Tony Gayle’s Sound, Associate Lighting Designer Jessica Brigham. Costume Supervisor Martin Rodges, Pops Ryan O’Connor
Musical Supervisor John Donovan, Orchestral Supervisor Stephen Hill, Josh Cotell Director/Keyboards Assistant MD/Keyboard Robert Wicks, Guitars Gareth Lieske, Nathan Finn Bass Guitar Drums Dave Stewart,
Till October 14th then touring
The amount of talent on stage this week is stupefying. Tim Firth’s always provided reliably heart-tugging small stories (Neville’s Island, Kinky Boots, Sheila’s Island, Calendar Girls), sometimes against something huge. And they can fall apart in a slight cuteness. Here he writes and co-directs (with Stacey Haynes) the Take That musical, Greatest Days. So we’re sure of a one-source high-quality jukebox.
At first you fear’s it’s the expense of talent in a waste of shame. A wisp of storyline attached to such a diversity of British talent you know at least the British musical is in safe hands. If only great new material can be found for it. The boyband themselves are quite overwhelmingly fine: Kalifa Burton, Jamie Corner, Archie Durrant, Regan Gascoigne, Alexanda O’Reilly. Burton takes the Barlow line. Charlotte Anne Steen’s Dance Captain. They dance and sing, integrate with the young women (two generations) and even turn into statues.
Firth threads the story through the songbook: ‘A Million Love Songs’ and 17 more follow, with such pieces as ‘Greatest Day’, ‘Rule the World’, ‘Shine’ ‘These Days’ and the finest perhaps ‘Back For Good’ with its kick of Barlow’s male soprano/counter-tenor on “whatever”.
But this story grows, and by the slightly dawdling but gentler, substantial second half you find Firth’s story begins to tell. It’s not profound, and Firth’s inspiration from the real-life Calendar Girls is palpable. But it’s a worthy heart-tug about how bereavement shocks a group of 16-year-olds for 25 years, and how they heal themselves without setting out to. It certainly improves on a recent musical to arrive here recently.
Rachel (Jennifer Ellison, a fine singer too of course) takes down the washing and bids her decent husband Jeff (Christopher D Hunt) farewell, but why does he find her back in darkness on his return? Ellison anchors the story, skirling in her frustration but never bitter, just a little desolate. Why?
Soon we’re back with her younger self Olivia Hallet as Young Rachel (spirited and affecting) who with four friends in 1993 attend the first Take That concerts in Manchester. As in any boy or girl-band stuff happens, tragedy strikes, they part and suddenly 25 years on Rachel who’s “not the sort to win competitions” does so; four friends reunite for a concert in Athens. Songs flow, the boys gyrate invisibly, and Aaron Renfree’s choreography makes much of the space and talent.
Shout out at this point for Lucy Osborne’s functional and clever set (a game of two staircases moved about from Greek Parthenon to Stairways to Heaven) and often stunning costumery; and Rob Casey’s literally dazzling lighting. It can blind you, but its precision and variety does that more effectively ranged from peach through turquoise. It does more than storytelling. Tony Gayle’s sharply-profiled sound can be loud and the screechiness of the first half means things are lost, but this is a really strong creative team, with the band led by Josh Cotell.
Before that Hallet’s joined by her bestie Debbie (Mary Moore, a superb voice and actor), who makes Rachel promise to let her be her bridesmaid. All Rachel wants is that. Debbie hasn’t a dream for herself, but the other three Young Heather (Kitty Harris flicking blonde fashion with attitude) wants to be a mother and fashion-designer, Young Claire (Mari McGinlay, shy and tense athlete) is set for dive-board Olympics cheered on by Debbie, and Young Zoe (Hannah Brown, wonderfully preppy) is the proverbial bookish girl of older parents. After a series of adventures (thrown off by Alan Stocks as truculent ex-Spandau Ballet roadie-turned-bus-driver and reappearing as Every Dave from Greek to British) they end up swearing allegiance on a steep rock.
Flash forward, and something’s happened to commitment-phobic Rachel, who corralls Heather (Rachel Marwood, downright in her volte-face of a life), Zoe (Holly Ashton, still precise in her old orienteering and springing surprises), Claire (Jamie-Rose Monk, most affecting and afflicted of all) as beneficiaries of her win. A trip to Greece, penis-breaking, detention and rush to a stadium, and home to a big decision. A little rock, and a big one.
The older editions of the girls bring gravitas, sadness and wit. Their stories have of course diverged radically from their predicted paths. And guess who says of who: “You’ve grown your own boy band!” You at first think one set might act both young and old, and it’s certainly possible. But the workload, and finally the enchantment as young and old versions of the same person stand side by side is both affecting and musically rich.
It’s a one-stop night out to spot upcoming with established talent. Everything from costume-change to curtain-call is a kaleidoscope. Firth’s story might be sentimental, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But if he could have created a more compelling thread-through story for these five women, with all the talent and songs, it might have been something far more.