Take That, Hallam FM Arena, Sheffield

Can it still be magic?
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The Independent Culture

It nearly never happened. Oh, I don't mean the Take That reunion. That was a fait accompli every bit as inevitable as the non-participation of the band's most famous member. After all, let's not pretend that the foursome's post-TT careers have exactly been thriving. I'm talking about the whole Take That project. Back at the cusp of the 1990s, conveyor-belt pop genuinely appeared to be moribund, its gene pool weakened by years of reliance on Stock Aitken Waterman, and mortally wounded by the triple prongs of acid, baggy and grunge.

When Take That - a cheesy, smiley quintet making cheesy SAW-style songs - started turning up on Saturday morning TV shows, they couldn't have looked more outdated if they wore Elizabethan ruffs. The first three singles flopped, and even after they finally scored a top-10 hit with a Tavares cover, the follow-up fared poorly.

But the team behind them - talent scout Nigel Martin-Smith and producer Ian Levine - were playing the long game. Their simple, brutal plan - use the gay audience to get the band on to Top of the Pops, then tone down the gayness (but not by that much) and sell them to the girlies - became the prototype for every new pop act of the Nineties.

Which is why, 10 years after their inglorious demise, Barlow, Owen, Orange and Donald are able to sell out a comeback tour in a matter of minutes, and it's why Howard (or is it Jason?) is in front of me tonight, smirking, "The last time we were here, all the girlies had fried eggs, but I see a lot of big boobies out there tonight."

But let's not rewrite history. Take That's records, give or take "Sure" and "Back For Good", were mostly rubbish - naff Hi-NRG or saccharine balladry - and most of their hits weren't penned by the much vaunted Barlow (who was hyped as some sort of new George Michael), but were covers of tunes by Manilow, Hartman, Gibb or King. That said, The Ultimate Tour is more fun than it has any right to be.

Barlow is still difficult to love: pudding-faced, serious-browed, Deirdre-surnamed, Astley-souled, the epitome of Hollyoaks Man. Donald and Orange, always the interchangeable tall blokes at the back, remain indistinguishable, but it's the puckish Mark Owen, in the absence of ssshhh, you know who, that gains the most screams.

At first, they keep their cards close to their chests, as grown-ups do. For the opening song, suited, booted and static, they could be one of those gransploitation pop-opera acts such as Il Divo or G4.

Of course, it was all a tease. No sooner does "Pray" kick in than they're pirouetting, sliding and flouncing through their hits like it's 1994 again. Watching a quartet of thirtysomething adults prancing about - and in Owen's case, breakdancing - is both hilariously camp and oddly joy-inspiring.

It's during the encore that 10,000 fires are re-lit (Beverly Knight, incidentally, does the Lulu bit). They reappear with a clever Matrix parody, in which a mad scientist demonstrates how to manufacture a boy band. It's disarmingly candid, with mentions of ploys such as "maintain ambiguous sexuality" and is followed by an equally witty "FAQs" skit: "I bet you got loads of groupies... Do you ever talk to Robbie?"

Speaking of which, whatever did happen to the fifth feller? Oh, if only I could leave my review hanging on that line. But Take That can't let it lie, any more than I can. The stage falls dark, a 20ft hologram of Robbie Williams - specially recorded by the absent superstar - is conjured before our eyes, to sing the opening to "Could It Be Magic", and all of Sheffield chants "Robbie! Robbie!"

When he sleeps tonight, will Howard (or was it Jason?) be haunted by that sound? Or will he just be dreaming of boobs?