With the pioneering verbatim-based London Road at the National and the RSC's exuberant Matilda conquering the West End, the British musical has been showing signs of bold, fresh life in the past couple of years.
I regret to report that this trend is now bucked by Loserville, a new show by Elliot Davis and James Bourne which derives (for five of its songs) from the latter's 2005 album Welcome to Loserville which he created with his post-Busted pop-punk band, Son of Dork.
True, you could not accuse the piece of being a mere juke-box tuner. New numbers have been composed and a story-line devised. But for a show that supposedly celebrates distinctiveness - as two adolescent computer-nerds struggle above the jock-culture in a 1971 American high-school and win the race to send the first email – it never levitates into its own corresponding originality.
Except, that is, through the droll, bright verve of Francis O'Connor's excellent design. Against a futuristic circuitry-backdrop, the cast carry round huge, fantastical notebooks which they flip open to create everything from a forest to an auto-mobile.
In other departments, this Grease-meets-High School Musical -meets-Glee-meets-The Browning Version (just kidding about the last) certainly has a cheeky knowingness about its influences and pop-culture references but this is not deployed wittily enough to turn the nonsensical narrative and its attendant cliches and anachronisms into giddy camp gold.
For example, new girl Holly (Eliza Hope Bennett) is sort of like Grease's Sandy in reverse, posing as a bespectacled frump (“I've been cursed with brains and looks” she moans) in order to be taken seriously as a would-be first female astronaut.
There are opportunities for glorious send-up here especially when compromising photographs surface from her past and give an absurd blackmailing twist to the plot. But these can't be explored because of her developing wet romance with fellow-brainiac misfit Michael Dork (Aaron Sidwell).
The songs, on a first hearing, all sound more or less the same and are pounded out with bludgeoning loudness in Steven Dexter's soulless production. The cast leap about hyper-actively but, apart from the odd sequence (such as a Judo match between the geeks and the jocks) there is not much charm in all this robotic freneticism.
William Blake wrote that “Energy is Eternal Delight”. You wonder if he might have revised that opinion after seeing this show. When the company sing about wanting a “Ticket Outta Loserville”, they were not, from where I was sitting, on their own.
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