When you stop and think about it, it’s incredible that a musical parody based on a US television series which finished airing over 18 years ago is touring the UK, and that people are paying to go and see it. Such is the cultural phenomenon of Friends, which lives on not just on Netflix, but in the hearts and minds of all those who followed the gang devotedly through the 90s and 00s.
The extent of the fandom inside the Quays Theatre is evident very early on, with audience members loudly finishing the characters’ iconic lines before the actors can. How on earth do you create and deliver a show that is based on something so ingrained in the cultural consciousness?
Writer Miranda Larson tackles the challenge of structuring Friendsical by focusing on the Ross and Rachel love plot, with Ross telling the story. While this is a good idea in theory (their “on again, off again” storyline is one of the most memorable things about the show), in practice there are issues. A lot of time is wasted on the set up and maintenance of this framing device, with Ross talking directly to the audience and the characters arguing about how the story should be told. When you have an abundance of material to choose from – 236 episodes in total – this seems an odd choice.
The pacing is inconsistent too. While the first half focusses on events of the early seasons in chronological detail, the second half crams in multiple plots from the last six series (Ross’ second failed marriage, Rachel’s pregnancy, Monica and Chandler’s relationship – to name a few) at caffeinated pace and in no particular order. The characters make regular mention of needing to speed up and cut things out, but despite this, at 2 hours 40 minutes the show feels too long.
However, there’s plenty about this tongue-in-cheek tribute to enjoy. From joking asides and callback costumes, to songs sampling the recognizable soundtrack and an entire dance routine choreographed with familiar moves and gestures, the volume of references in Friendsical is staggering and makes a great Easter egg hunt for the diehard fan.
The portrayal of the six main characters is a mixture of spot-on impressions and looser interpretations – it sometimes feels as if the show would benefit from picking an approach and sticking to it. Ally Retberg perfectly captures Phoebe’s sunniness and kooky physicality (and does a spectacular turn as Janice). Sarah Michelle-Kelly’s portrayal of Monica is so accurate – vocally and gesturally – I kept forgetting I wasn’t watching Courtney Cox (her singing voice is also superb). On the other hand, Nelson Bettencourt, Amelia Kinu Muus and Sario Solomon (Ross, Rachel and Joey respectively) are less obviously identifiable and put their own stamp on the characters. But it’s Tim Edwards who steals the show as Chandler, nailing every line, gesture and facial expression with obvious enjoyment.
The concept of a celebrity guest appearing in the show is a clever one, given Friends’ legendary cameos from the likes of Brad Pitt, Reese Witherspoon, Elle Macpherson and so on. Dragstar Ella Vaday should be a fabulous and contemporary addition, but there’s more “offstage” arguing about what roles she should play than anything else, which feels like a wasted opportunity.
The biggest laughs come from the unexpected, when elements of the TV show are portrayed less literally: Ross’ English fiancée Emily dressed as Mary Poppins, Rachel’s ‘makeover’ (featuring that haircut and very conspicuous nipples) and a song that lets us inside Gunther’s mind. This is parody at its wittiest, twisting what we see but recreating the feeling we had when we first watched the show.
Overall, Friendsical is a great concept with some star comic turns, but the execution unfortunately lets it down.
Friendsical – a parody musical about Friends is at The Lowry Salford from 31 October to 5 November 2022.