Gielgud Theatre, London W1
Opened 8 June, 1999

If I thought it would actually do any good in combatting the loathsome phenomenon of anodyne, formulaic, sausage-machined boybands, I would firebomb the Gielgud Theatre myself. But Boyband the show is no more than a symptom of the vilest plague in current pop. In fact, it cannot even be distinguished from the "real" boyband culture. David Bowie, when chronicling the career of a fictitious rock megastar nearly 30 years ago, could not portray or represent Ziggy Stardust without becoming him, and the performers playing the five members of "Freedom" here will suffer exactly the same fate. I confidently predict that Freedom's first real-life single will go Top Five before the end of July, and few if any will understand or even notice the difference between them and Boyzone, Westlife et al.

Writer Peter Quilter describes the show as "half drama, half pop concert", but in the event the pop-concert half does its job too well and the drama half not nearly well enough. The numbers are choreographed, composed (several by writers behind hits by the likes of Peter Andre and Bad Boys Inc.), arranged and produced to irritating generic perfection. No live musicians are credited, and the vocals are so perfectly harmonised and mixed that I cannot believe they are entirely or even predominantly live either. The set even includes the obligatory blander-still cover version of a bland-to-begin-with '70s hit in this case, "Every Day Hurts" by Sad Café. In other words, there is effectively no difference between these segments and any other boyband's performance.

So does the drama differentiate Freedom from, say, 911? No, it does not. Put bluntly, it is almost pantomime I was sorely tempted, on one of the wicked manager's entrances, to yell out "He's behind you!". It claims to lay bare the truth behind boybands' facades, and Quilter maintains that every plot strand involving the druggie, the secret father, and the closet gay, as well as the mandatory feud between the dim frontman and the really talented one is true of one or another of the several combos he has interviewed. However, these scenes (really, little more than sketches between numbers) are played broad, brash and disposable. The undeniably talented Bryan Murray takes a holiday from acting in the role of manager Wayland, seldom even attaining a second dimension of characterisation.

Boyband will certainly find an audience among those who kid themselves that it is pastiche or even parody rather than simply an indistinguishable reproduction, or those who conversely take the whole business at face value: gay men and pubescent girls, or those who pretend to be one or the other (such as the most blatant press-night claque I have ever seen) in short, the standard boyband constituency. But the truth is that, what with the fast turnover of such bands and the steady market in after-the-fact "revelations", we see, hear and read all this stuff every other week anyway. We have no choice in the matter. Let me entertain you? I think not.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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