REVIEW: Loserville, Union Theatre ✭✭✭

Loserville at the Union Theatre

Union Theatre
5th December
3 Stars

The Union Theatre is well established as one of the most exciting and interesting Fringe venues in London. It always promises an interesting evening, having recently served up a number of fresh new productions and reworkings of shows that didn’t quite hit the mark the first time around.

Loserville definitely falls into the latter category; the brainchild of Elliot Davis and James Bourne received lukewarm reviews when it moved from the West Yorkshire Playhouse to the West End. Bourne was a founding member of the boy band Busted, a fact curiously omitted from his biog in the programme!

The show set in a quiet American town, as some high school students look to escape their lack of prospects and inevitable teenage angst. As ever in American high school dramas, an iron wall exists between the nerds and the cool kids. Michael Dork and his socially awkward friends try to find a way to make computers talk to each other (the show essentially claims they invented e-mail; I would recommend that Tim Berners-Lee does not watch this show).

He comes up against Eddie, a textbook jock, who’s desperate to find out Michael’s plans, as his Dad owns a computer firm. Traditional boundaries get blurred as a beautiful yet brainy Holly arrives on the scene; she originally hooks up (as they say) with Michael, much to the jealous irritation of his best friend Lucas. Eddie and his slack jawed accomplices then devise a fairly ludicrous blackmail plot to snare Holly; will she go to the dark side and will the intertwined friendships and relationships survive?

As the synopsis implies, the biggest problem with Loserville is it feels like you’ve seen it all before. It’s a sort of mish-mash of The Big Bang Theory and every high school teen drama in history (Grease, Saved by the Bell, Glee). Whilst the script gives the ‘geeks’ a bit of emotional depth and some genuine dramatic tension, the jocks and mean girls are almost unbearably one dimensional and cliched. The most interesting character is Samantha, one of the cool crew who harbours a secret passion for sci-fi – a brilliant opportunity that is never fully developed.

The score is similarly poppy and punkish; it’s enjoyable at first but it isn’t particularly varied, especially due to the high number of reprises. Its relentless hyperactivity bludgeons you around the head, especially when combined with the bright and vibrant costumes. The lyrics are also frequently uninspired, showing some of the oversimplicity that Busted was derided for (“I’m the one you should be dating/ Seeing you with him is so frustrating”)

After reading this, you may wonder why I didn’t give the show a lowly one star and recommend that it should be consigned to musical oblivion. Well, it’s imaginatively staged and directed by Michael Burgen and feels much more appropriate in an intimate venue than a larger West End theatre. There is sensibly a more knowing treatment of some of the sillier aspects (although the Yugoslavian twins who were panned in the previous version are mysteriously still there).

Choreographer Matt Krzan provides some inventive routines, especially during Little Things You Do You, which cleverly incorporates a badminton game into the score and movement. Added vocal support is often provided by members of the ensemble off-stage, a shrewd decision that lends some pleasing harmonies to many of the songs.

The set is wonderful; productions have often wrestled with how to make the tiny stage at the Union Theatre as impactful as possible. The designer (alas uncredited) has opened up the entire space, leaving a room with graffiti and scientific scribblings on the wall.

At one point, some of these become illuminated, which combined with some clever lighting, makes one moment especially powerful. More scrawlings are added throughout the show courtesy of a blackboard, which is very useful in adding context and a sense of location to some of the scenes.

It’s a well-acted piece, although some of the ensemble came dangerously close to chewing the scenery during the group numbers. Joshua Watt is endearing and sings perfectly as the geeky Michael Dork. Having said that, his accent does slip occasionally and he’s possibly too conventionally good looking to play a role of someone who’s apparently repulsive to females.

Holly-Anne Hull put in an equally strong performance as the clever and kindly Holly. She has a superb voice but needs to project her voice a bit more clearly as she struggled to be heard above the band at times. Shane Gibb was seriously impressive during his professional debut, carrying his solo song with skill; he’s certainly one to watch.

Loserville is a production full of E numbers; bright and sweet but likely to overload you. It’s a derivative script and score made as good as it can get by some talented direction and an energetic young cast.

Loserville runs at the Union Theatre until 20 December 2015

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