With such a variety of musicals on offer, it's not always easy to see the differences between them. Nevertheless, there are very distinct types of musicals, and 'Never Forget' is one of them. It lies in the midst of a sub-genre focused on popular music. The music might have been written by a band or a single person, or might be a collection of songs from a particular era. In the case of 'Never Forget', the songs are those of the highly successful boy band 'Take That'. In this arena of the musical market, the songs are usually strung together with a story that can encompass the songs at appropriate intervals. Unfortunately, this format frequently fails to deliver because of an ill-fitting storyline, poor dialogue or both.
'Never Forget', like many other shows of its kind, has forgotten one fundamental idea: a show has to have a good script and a good idea to make the story work. Sure, the gadgetry, music, singing and dancing will all give you a fighting chance of success as they do here, but they're not sufficient. And the audience deserve a good script - one that entertains, has an interesting and imaginative plot and with believable and well-written dialogue.
The basic idea here is that some northern lads are seeking easy readies to solve their cash-flow problems. In the case of Ash (Dean Chisnall), he needs money to save his mother's pub from being taken by the bailiffs. The lads decide to audition for a 'Take That' tribute band – the kind of margarine equivalent of the real thing. Along the way, they fall foul of an unscrupulous manager (of course) and an unscrupulous recording agent (of course), and (of course) Ash's mother doesn't get a second thought come the time when the band win a tribute contest and have the money to repay her debts. So much for never forgetting!
The script for 'Never Forget' simply doesn't do the trick. In fact, it's one of the weakest that I've encountered in a long while, held together by little more than fresh air or invisible thread - there's just nothing in it of any real substance, and nothing very original, or inspiring. The dialogue, stranded in Coronation Street territory, is the kind that appears in second-rate sitcoms and incorporating telegraphed opportunities for the lads in the band to get their kit off as often as possible.
Because the script is so poor in 'Never Forget', the actors don't face much of a challenge apart from hiding embarassment. They do their best, and they're an enthusiastic bunch with masses of energy, but they were always fighting against the odds. On the other hand, their singing and dancing are more than good enough to entertain, and I particularly liked the vocals of Sophia Ragavelas as Ash's girlfriend, and Dean Chisnall in the lead sounded in great form.
In the visual design department, 'Never Forget' is something of a mixed bag - ranging from the rather tacky to the truly amazing. The tackiness is found in two enormous walls that look like they've been recycled from a third-rate school play. But the technological gadgetry works well. There are real flames that are so hot, you can feel the heat instantly 10 rows from the apron, and there's one of the neatest tricks I've ever seen involving rain - but I won't spoil the effect since it is very, very clever and you have to see it to believe it. As a technophile, I could fork out the price of a ticket just to see that.
There are several things that have come to irritate me about musicals of this type. First, the curtain calls are accompanied by music with a heavy beat which automatically induces most of the audience to clap in time to the music. The idea of applauding the performers seems to have been totally discarded even though they go through the motions of taking their bows. Second, the end is never the end. We have endless encores of the songs we've already heard. And do they go on! To be fair, they're not nearly as long in 'Never Forget' as I have endured in other shows - 'Peter Pan, El Musical', in particular, where it felt like the entire show was being repeated.
And there's a final irritation which makes me wonder why there's any point to anything that comes before the curtain calls, because once the drama has actually ended, the fun begins. People are encouraged to get to their feet, clap along with the music, sing or whatever they feel like doing. Now, if the end is the point at which people really start to have fun, what went wrong with the rest of the show? And if the show itself isn't so good, why don't we forget the story, string together the songs in a different way, and give people the kind of enjoyment they've obviously been looking for all along. Other shows are designed to allow the audience to get involved as the story progresses. For example, 'The Rocky Horror Show' allows audience participation at almost every turn of events, even with a ludicrously silly story. And other shows eschew the idea of any story at all, and just have the songs on their own and the audience do their own thing when they feel like it.
It's certainly the case that the story-driven musical format based on popular songs and/or bands, is in a rut, trading on successful musical material, but relying on limp stories to hold everything together. And that's sad, because 'Never Forget' will obviously appeal to a large fan-base who delight in the music of 'Take That' and the show itself does have potential. However, I suspect many fans will turn up anyway, but I'd be surprised if many of them don't feel somewhat disappointed.
What the popular press had to say.....
FIONA MOUNTFORD for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Ed Curtis's production is a riot of fake tans, outrageous costumes and the highest-octane choreography the West End has seen in years." ESTHER WALKER for THE INDEPENDENT says, "The show is good. It's fast-paced and lively, funny and easy on the eye, and the songs have been lovingly and faithfully adapted to the stage." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "I was both smiling and tapping my foot...Pacy production is blessed with a succession of highly energetic, enjoyably erotic dance routines." LYN GARDNER for THE GUARDIAN says, "There are flashes of droll humour, the actors are engaging and there is a lively vulgarity." DOMINIC MAXWELL for THE TIMES says, "While it's played at a zip and sung with a smile, it's terrible old cobblers and it knows it."