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15 May 2024

How Take That helped me embrace middle age

Seeing Gary, Howard and Mark perform in Manchester revealed how friendships, freedom and fun evolve through life.

By Hannah Barnes

There comes a time in everyone’s life when they must face up to a difficult fact: they have become middle-aged. My recognition of this came in the early hours of Sunday morning, in Manchester, as my girlfriends and I sipped a very-much-not-needed gin and tonic. “I’m not sure they’re even old enough to be in here,” I said, observing several scantily clad young women, less than half my age. Fresh-faced. Rather beautiful. Or “nubile”, as one friend observed.

Sadly, reader, we were not. For we are in our forties, and this was our second late-night bar. It was far trendier than the first we had visited, which had taken me back to my university days: an unrecognisable shot with every drink purchased (I believe this may have been some kind of revolting strawberry sambuca combination), sticky floors and bad music. At least the DJ had indulged us there.

Earlier that night we had been, for the umpteenth time, to see Take That perform live. Some alcohol had been consumed. It was a gorgeous afternoon spent in the sunshine catching up.

“Good evening and welcome to Co-op Arena,” Gary Barlow quipped, referring to the disastrous, delayed opening of what is now the UK’s largest indoor concert venue, where the gig had originally meant to be played.

There were times in the last fortnight where we didn’t think we’d be going at all, as other fans saw their concerts cancelled, even while they queued outside to be let in. But contingencies were made and the show went on, just a couple of miles across the city at the AO Arena. This was, coincidentally, the band’s 50th show at the venue.

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The three of us – my girlfriends and I – have seen Take That together not quite 50 times, but we’re into double digits now. I dread to think how much we have spent over the years. Tickets, accommodation, refreshments and merchandise all add up.

We’ve seen them as a four-piece, the full fab five, back as a quartet and now as a trio. It began at the reunion tour in 2006. I had found kindred spirits in these two other young women who had, like me, loved Take That the first time round, but had never seen them live.

Back in the Nineties, tickets had to be bought over the phone or from the venues directly. I never got through. Not that it’s anywhere near cool to be a Take That fan now, but back then it was social suicide. Despite my bedroom being adorned with posters of the group – each member had their own door on my concertina wardrobe; the sixth was reserved for group pictures – I could not speak of this after leaving primary school. At secondary school, when a classmate admitted to being a Take That fan in an English lesson, the room broke out into laughter. She never lived it down, even after she had long moved on.

Not so when being an adult devotee. Even those who hate the music – mad as they may be – will begrudgingly admit that Take That put on a cracking show. Some of the stadium tours of the past two decades have been spectacular. They’ve included “Om” the 30-metre-high robot, enormous mechanical elephants, trapeze artists and unicycles. And although this tour is far lower-key than previous ones, there were still flames, waterfalls, giant revolving staircases and numerous costume changes.

“The Boys” appeared in bright pastels, lilac suits and white glittering jackets with sparkling crowns. So, we were beyond shocked that the ultimate faux pas was made right at the start of this most recent show. Not the questionable outfits they’d chosen to kick off with – Mark Owen had a black skirt on, reminiscent of the band’s “Sure” video from the mid-Nineties or Keanu Reeves’s Neo in The Matrix – but much worse. Just thinking about it now sends shivers down my spine. They opened with a song from “the new album”.

Who does that? Any artist who has been around for decades knows one simple fact: no one has come to hear you play new songs. No one. While this is tolerated at a halfway point through a performance, allowing us middle-aged women to have a strategic toilet break and trip to the bar, to begin in this way is unacceptable.

Thankfully, the comfort break was afforded later on, when the trio performed a solo song each. The crowd lapped up Gary’s soulful voice and showed plenty of support for Mark. But “poor Howard”, I thought, as streams of women visibly left their seats and headed out of the arena while he crooned away, dressed head to toe in bright yellow. He performed a tune that had never actually been released. Perhaps they did know the audience after all.

As time has gone on and the three of us have had children, moved further away from each other geographically and life has become busier, these events have become much more than Take That concerts. They are the excuse we need to see each other. To laugh. To cry. To drink too much. And have unadulterated fun. We can sing at the top of our lungs, and still be as excited watching three men in their fifties perform the original “Pray” dance as we were when it came out in 1993. When else do we get the chance to throw in boyband slides of our own without judgement?

Seeing these women is balm for the soul. Combined with cheesy pop music and girlhood crushes that refuse to fade entirely, it is my idea of perfection. If that makes me middle-aged, fine. I’m embracing it.  

[See also: Olivia Rodrigo’s guts-spilling, rabble-rousing tour]

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This article appears in the 15 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Stink