REVIEW: Loserville, Union Theatre ✭✭✭✭

The cast of Loserville at the Union Thetare
The cast of Loserville. Photo: Darren Bell

Union Theatre
8 March 2015
4 Stars

The fate of many musicals lies in the hands of those responsible for the first production. When a new musical flops, often responsibility is thrown on the core creatives – the writer and composer. Very rarely does blame fall upon those responsible for casting, direction or design. The phrase “It was a flop” adheres to the piece, the artistic work, and not to those originally directing, choreographing or performing the piece.

The first productions of Merrily We Roll Along, The Grand Tour or Candide (to name just a few) were all considered flops. But subsequent productions have proved that initial assessment laughably wrong.

The West End premiere of Loserville, a musical with book, music and lyrics by Elliot Davis and James Bourne, was not a success. I found it dire in most respects, not musically though, but the concept which drove that production and the tricks employed in design and presentation seemed the main culprits. The revival of Loserville now playing at the Union Theatre, makes that point emphatically.

With direction from Michael Burgen, musical direction from Bryan Hodgson, and choreography by Matt Kazan, this version of Loserville sparkles with enthusiastic effervescence, combining familiar comic stereotypes with excellent ensemble singing and dancing, and giving some excellent performers a chance to shine, all the while emphasising the inherent gifts provided by book, score and lyrics.

This production revels in its geekiness. It is not every musical which can safely play Star Wars music as “get the audience in the right mood” music. But this one can. It is not every musical than can combine a passion for Star Trek, trousers that are too short and a penchant for picking your nose as lovable characteristics of central characters. But this one can. It is not every musical that can make comic moments and running jokes out of salacious perving on athletic young women or rock apes who bully those they dislike. But this one can. Following the Star Trek motto, Loserville boldly goes where most musicals have never gone before.

At times, the Nerd Factor exceeds reasonable bounds and there is no doubt the narrative could do with tightening and, occasionally, more clarity or exploration. For instance, there seems a deal of unmined possibility in the scenes at the Science Fiction Convention which open Act Two. Exploring the characters in an area where their geekiness makes them ordinary could well bring dividends.

The story is kooky and suitably silly. We are back in the early Seventies, when Star Trek has just finished its original TV run and when the Internet has not yet been born. There are cool kids (rich, beautiful dumb people) and desperately uncool kids (not rich, bright, obsessive sorts) uncomfortably sharing their schooling and recreation hours. The geeks bond in the same way the cool kids do, but they don’t try to humiliate the cool kids the way they humiliate the geeks. The contrast in physical appearance and style is as marked as the contrast in their temperaments.

Into this commonplace mix come special ingredients: the geek boy who wants to be a writer, whose name is Lucas and who is writing a romantic tale set amidst space battles (got it?); the geek woman who wants to be an astronaut and who has a secret which makes her prey to blackmail; the geek boy who believes that he can find a way to make computers talk to each other and wants to do it before anyone else does (yes, accept that the Internet was created by an American teenager working essentially on his own, if you will); and the impossibly vain, impossibly entitled, impossibly stupid boy Adonis who is desperate to impress his father without doing any work.

These four, and their friends, waltz through the plot dealing with issues like the meaning of true friendship, loyalty, the pressures of love, betrayal, forgiveness and self-acceptance. The worthy, important messages are never dwelt on, but they are there, providing texture and frisson as the goofiness glides by.

The programme is silent about who is responsible for the set, but whoever it is has produced a deceptively simple, but utterly inspired, framework for the action. The bare walls and floors of the Union are covered in mathematical and scientific calculations, science fiction graffiti and the odd silly phrase or quote. There are graphic references to Star Trek, George Lucas’ first film THX 1138, and Einstein – it’s geek heaven in drawings and images.

There are two other key components to the design: two small blackboards affixed to the back wall, which serve as a clever way for the locations of scenes to be announced while emphasising the school world in which the characters interact; and the nine coloured boxes which serve as various set devices and which together represent the ultimate geek device – the Rubik’s Cube, the ultimate evocation of the Seventies.

Elle-Rose Hughes provides a nifty set of costumes, which reflect both the time and the style of the era where the action unfolds. The science-fiction convention scene is particularly impressive costume-wise, but there are nice touches throughout which add to the frothy fizz of proceedings.

Burgen, in his directorial debut, keeps the action and characterisation bubbling along. The piece moves at a good pace and energy levels are high and well focussed. Some of the business emphasising the geekiness of key characters is slightly too slow, but there is never a sense of wretched boredom, a hallmark of the original West End production.

But the best aspect of the production lies in the music: Hodgson brings out the very best vocal work from the whole ensemble; when everyone is singing, the sound is full, rich and exhilarating. The part work is excellent. Hodgson plays the keyboards and directs the good work of Nicky Caulfield (drums) and Jamie Ross (guitar) providing a sure, ever-pulsing accompaniment to the vocal work of the cast. The score is poppy and tuneful, full of life.

There are, however, issues with the balance between soloists and band, and the issues don’t lie with the band. The Union is an intimate space and it ought to be possible to sing acoustically and be heard: indeed, many of the cast demonstrate that here. But, not all. Particularly the female soloists, most of whom do not have the projection and support necessary to soar over the band. This is about training and ability, not about microphones. Performers need to able to sing and be heard using their own body; reliance upon amplification in a space such as the Union is ludicrous.

The best performances come from the comedy gold duo of Sandy Grigelis and Matthew Harvey who play the super-geeks, Marvin and Francis. Embracing the ludicrous and extreme aspects of their nerdilicous roles, both walk that razor-blade line between preposterous and true. They are genuinely delightful in all departments; their singing and dancing as excellent as their characterisations.

Jordan Fox is wonderful as the would-be George Lucas, complete with silly glasses and appalling hair. He gives a very detailed performance as the nerd to end all nerds, full of fussy business and angst inducing momentum. He can sing extremely well too and provides the vocal highpoint of this production.

As the awful pretty boy, Eddie Arch, Lewis Bradley is very pretty and not remotely awful as a performer. It is quite hard to portray both stupidity and vanity to the level required here, but Bradley manages it with consummate skill. As the nice pretty boy, Michael Dork, Luke Newton is quintessentially nice (and pretty) with a voice that is true and sweet and a solid line in dance moves.

Isobel Hathaway is the best of the female line-up; her Samantha is perky and in good voice. Neither Holly-Anne Hull or Sarah Covey seem particularly well cast in their roles, but both work hard to make them work; vocally neither is as strong as might be desirable.

The ensemble is strong and well disciplined; in particular, their performance of Kazan’s energetic and dynamic choreography is precise and impressive. Standouts from the ensemble, and ones to watch, include Charlie Kendall, Delycia Belgrave and Morgan Scott.

The Union Theatre, inspired by Sasha Regan’s vision for pushing boundaries on the Fringe, is a performing space that London really needs. It provides opportunities to performers starting their careers and brings new life and audiences to musicals, like Loserville, which may not have been superbly served on their first outing. Burgen’s production indicates that there is life and value in Loserville which the original production did not hint at.

Enjoyable and surprising, it will nourish your inner geek. You know you have one.

Loserville runs at the Union Theatre until 21st March

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