Words by Melissa Blease Theatre Royal Bath until 1 October
Over 10 seasons from 1994-2004, the American TV sitcom Friends impacted the cultural landscape in a way that no TV sitcom series has done before – or since.
From haircuts, catchphrases and ‘third space’ coffee shops to same-sex marriage, surrogate pregnancy, fast flings, agonising break-ups and the acceptance of the truly supportive network that is the family of choice, few aspects of modern life went unexamined (and indeed, celebrated) by Rachel, Ross, Chandler, Joey, Monica and Phoebe.
Less snarky than Roseanne, never as cynical as Seinfield and far, far removed from the lifeless UK sitcoms of the same era (One Foot In The Grave vs Friends? Oh come on!), Friends showed their generation (and many generations to come) who they were, who they aspired to be and who they would eventually become. Today, almost three decades on from when we first made friends with Friends, Friendsical represents one of the many directions that the legendary sitcom has taken.
Friendsical isn’t aiming to be Friends, Live on Stage!; it’s a parody, right? An ‘entertaining, feel-good show’ fresh from a residency at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, now touring across the UK. But while the show as a whole is indeed a funny one in both the philosophical and the literal sense, it takes a while to hit its métier.
From the off, the opening bars of that familiar theme music is not quite that familiar theme music. Nelson Bettencourt is not quite Ross, Ally Retberg is sorta Phoebe-esque, Sarah Michelle-Kelly is very, very Monica, Sario Solomon gives fair Joey, and Amelia Kinu Muus is all her own work with just enough Rachel in the mix to ‘be’ Rachel. Tim Edwards, meanwhile, is such a perfect Chandler that it could almost be actual him… but then, upping the surreal ante to the max, super-glamorous former Pussycat Doll Kimberly Wyatt starts popping up at inopportune moments as a Special Guest Star.
The general storyline (a condensed version of the Ross and Rachel story, interspersed with all the legendary ‘The One With/The One Where/The One After….’ greatest hit themes) that keeps the meta-theatre, TV studio-set-within-a-set shenanigans going is very, very familiar, with the best lines being the ones that have been lifted directly from the original episodes. It does, however, all get a little bit too muddled-up at times; as well-executed as they are, the big, all-singing, all-dancing numbers slow an already fairly slow pace down too much (but there are, by the way, some fabulous musical theatre superstars-in-the-making in the cast), and a handful of elements – the dancing dinosaurs, perhaps? – detract from the punchier themes.
But overall, Friendsical has a big heart at its core, paying gentle, respectful and – yes! – witty homage to a contemporary cultural phenomenon while boldly offering its own, unique directions for a trip down memory lane.
Tickets available from theatretoyal.org.uk | Guest stars this week are Kimberly Wyatt joining the cast of Friendsical from 11 to 13 October and Jay McGuiness joining the cast of Friendsical on 14 and 15 October.