And so it was that June finally brought that most anticipated of treats as I travelled North, and homeward, to see the Take That Progress tour. On its first night at the City of Manchester Stadium, the band ‘came home’ to hoards of screaming women, including me and my mum. I’ve seen enough tours of this scale, (and even worked on a few of Robbie’s) to know that the amount spent on them *should* mean it’s practically impossible to produce anything that’s not super-impressive, but when you’re putting together the next tour for a band like Take That there’s enough expectation and competition that it’s necessary to very much pull out all the stops for something totally original, bigger, better and utterly unforgettable.
And I’d have to say that for me, Progress ticked all the boxes. I’ll admit that I was rather surprised to hear that the Pet Shop Boys would be opening the show, (what with them being incredibly successful and accomplished showmen themselves…why ever did they need to open a Take That gig?) but nonetheless was excited to have the opportunity to see them too. And despite having limited access to the main staging and production elements (although they used add-ons to great effect and to the point where we couldn’t even see what was going on behind until a great reveal later) they put on a super show, in true style, with awesomely original costumes (with nods to lego and disco balls aplenty).
And so, all prepped and ready for the main event as it were, the girly screams rose up to greet a mad professor character who was to operate a giant keyboard on stage, which effected to type onto the huge projection screen and ask us if we were ready….well ‘yes’ we screamed! But as four figures walked out of the wings and onto stage, around my mum and I there were frightened and disappointed murmurs of ‘where is Robbie’…..well lucky mum and I were informed enough from the previous concerts that we weren’t concerned about his absence. Thankfully we’d learned in advance that the evening was to take a bit of a retrospective format…..with ‘The Four’ appearing first to perform some of the post-Robbie hits…..then Robbie on to take centre stage alone with some of his own….and finally all five for some of the golden oldies as well as some of the newer classics. We were only too happy to share our wisdom with the ladies around us too, especially one who swore she’d only come to see Robbie and was devastated to see them come on without him.
And I thought I would miss him too, but Gary, Mark, Howard and Jason were no disappointment as they brought to life Shine in a magical wonderland-inspired scene….Gary playing on a fantastical curly piano, and Mark riding around on a wonderful giant caterpillar, with walking grandfather clocks, rollerskating bees and dancing hares, whilst they were all gorgeously costumed in vivid brights with giant smoke bubbles filling the stadium around them.
However, their walk-on-and-off entrances and exits were nothing to Robbie’s explosion onto stage….. The main screen showing an image of a tiny doorway, growing bigger and bigger until the screen itself burst open and Robbie was flung through it in mid-air to perform his customary opening number Let Me Entertain You. I found myself screaming uncontrollably, like one of those girls we used to see on TV queuing to see Take That and going wild at a glimpse of them. I didn’t know what had come over me, especially having seen Robbie before, but perhaps the fact that we’d waited those first few songs for him and had the chance to warm up and release our inhibitions with the Pet Shop Boys had turned me into this screeching teenage loon. After he’d strut around to Rock DJ, with neon-clad roller skaters waving ‘RW’ emblazoned flags and pulling him around in a glass chariot…. and after he’d been teased to a squealing audience during Real Love, hanging over them in a sort of crane and grabbing girls’ hands as he went….. it was of course the inevitable Angels that brought his solo set to a close.
Perhaps the best entrance of all though was as four and one became five, and atop the towering stage set, and above a real flowing waterfall, Take That performed Flood, rather more like famous opera stars than a band of thirty/forty-something pop stars. Below them, a team of athletic dancers bungee’d around the waterfall creating shapes and patterns in their light-up costumes, culminating in the Darwin-inspired Progress emblem. And of course, there were to be no shabby back stage retreats now, as Gary, Mark, Howard and Jason’s turrets became lifts, impressively swishing them down onto stage, right through the waterfall. Robbie though wasn’t to settle for this, as he launched off the top of set and in a perfect dive through the spraying waterfall, landed on stage just as we’d realised quite what he was doing and the awe-filled screaming ensued. Wow.
As the huge smoke rings rose through the stadium from the incredible pyrotechnics, the action continued as chess pieces came to life to fight in Kidz, whilst Howard and Jason dueled in a somewhat contrived but at least well choreographed sword fight. The result was officially a draw, but there was no doubt in my mind that Howard was the victor. Things settled in to the more sedate soon though as Gary produced glasses of red wine for the boys (milk though for Mark and Robbie) and they gathered around the piano to reminisce over Babe, Million Love Songs, Everything Changes But You, Pray and Back for Good.
The production tricks and surprises weren’t over though, and the giant seated figure (which Gary introduced to us as OM) which had been adorning the stage soon came to life, its hands lifting up the boys seated in them and eventually coming right into the crowd to stand to its full 60 feet high. And as we heard the first bars of Never Forget, OM began to raise his arms, echoing the iconic choreography for what we knew would be the finale. We weren’t left hanging too long though as we chanted for their return to the stage, and we were obliged by an encore of No Regrets in the shape of a fire-side sofa chat between Gary and Robbie, before the flames grew and we were treated to a rather funked up Relight My Fire.
As the fires died, the smoke cleared and the crowd scattered from the litter strewn stadium, we left buzzing and beaming into the throng of similarly gleeful fans, whilst above a solitary rogue balloon escaped and flew up into the sky.