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'A Different Stage' review – Gary Barlow shines in this gem of a one-man show

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

A million love songs later, here he is. We’ve seen the Take That line-up shrink over the years, from five down to three; now Gary Barlow unveils his own solo show, and it’s an absolute cracker. A Different Stage, which visits the West End during its national tour, could easily have been just a greatest hits concert peppered with some smug anecdotes. Instead, Barlow has teamed up with Tim Firth, his co-creator on musical The Girls and book writer for Take That musical The Band, for this tightly scripted gem.

The one-man show, based on Barlow’s new autobiography of the same name, guides us through his life, from his humble beginnings in small-town Cheshire (never forget where you’ve come here from!) to ruling the world – and then losing it all. We’re now so used to Barlow’s status as acclaimed songwriter and national treasure, popping up at royal jubilees and the Olympics Closing Ceremony, that it’s almost shocking to recall how he crashed out of the industry and faced serious personal challenges.

All of this is told with utterly winning self-deprecation. Barlow began his career in Northern working men’s clubs, and the show draws on that tradition – the cheeky patter, the callback gags, the chumminess with the audience. He gently pokes fun at his naïve younger self, whose hammy, crowd-pleasing early sets leapt from “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and “The Phantom of the Opera” to “Copacabana”.

It’s an effectively simple staging from co-director Seimi Campbell and designer Es Devlin, with Barlow using mainly musical props to chart his journey: from his first miniature keyboard through to a plastic Yamaha organ (which his hard-working Dad sold his time off to buy), cassettes, boombox and sampler. But it’s the piano to which he returns when he’s figuring out his songwriter identity, and to which he dedicates “Back for Good”.

Barlow is wryly amusing as he recounts the chaotic formation of Take That. Sporting a terrible Simon Le Bon-inspired mullet, he was aware that the other members of the group were much cooler and better-looking than him. Their early years together don’t get much air time here, but we do get Barlow’s version of that fateful moment when Robbie Williams quit the band. His internal response? Cheerily waving Robbie off into obscurity.

Of course, it didn’t turn out that way, and his former bandmate’s global stardom only makes his own failure – following a disastrous attempt at conquering America – even more miserable. That leads into the starkly confessional section of the show, where Barlow lays out his grim path into an eating disorder. His straightforward delivery is a good choice: not tear-jerking or melodramatic, but quietly devastating.

So, too, are his big moments of grief as he loses two loved ones, although there’s the odd spot of overwriting here; we don’t really need terms like “tsunami of sympathy”, and Barlow trips up occasionally when the language gets florid. But just as he comes to realise that vulnerability is key to songwriting, so he understands its effectiveness here when sharing his story. Even his tax scandal gets a mention, albeit brief, and he’s frank about how much more he appreciated his Take That success the second time around.

Barlow cuts an unassuming figure on stage, dressed casually in a red Adidas jacket, like a dad playing football in the park with his kids. He’s clearly long since made peace with his reputation as the nice guy, the slightly dull one of the group, the diligent student who does his homework – and yet the one with an incredible superpower.

When he launches into one of his songs (and I do wish we’d had a few more of them), it’s not just the whooping Take That fanatics in the crowd who are wowed. He truly is one of the great popular composers of our time, and, as his nostalgic, funny and ultimately triumphant show proves, a strong storyteller too. This is Barlow’s well-earned moment to shine.

A Different Stage is at the Duke of York's Theatre to 25 September.

Photo credit: Gary Barlow in A Different Stage (Photo by Claire Kramer MacKinnon)

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