Is the British-originated and written musical at last reclaiming its winning streak?
A scene from Loserville at the Quarry Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds Photo: Tristram Kenton
After years in the creative doldrums, with the notable exceptions of Mamma Mia! and the Elton John-scored Billy Elliot, it is at last fighting back. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly’s Matilda and the National’s of Adam Cork and Alecky Blythe’s London Road have both marked out major creative paths and introduced serious new voices. Now something equally remarkable is happening with the professional premiere in Leeds of Loserville, first commissioned and presented under the auspices of Youth Music Theatre UK in 2009, co-written by Elliot Davis and pop songwriter and performer James Bourne.
It’s not quite yet a ready-made West End hit, but for freshness, boldness and introducing an original and authentic rock musical voice to the theatre, there’s been nothing quite like this since The Who’s Tommy was first brought to the stage. And, in the same way as that show started with an album from which it significantly departed, so Loserville has its origins in an album that composer James Bourne created called Welcome to Loserville, from which only a handful of songs have been retained.
Both shows also happen to feature complex young men at their centres, who are outsiders yet have the ability to change the world. In the case of Loserville, Michael Dork (Aaron Sidwell) is a computer geek on the verge of the world-changing discovery that he can get computers to synch up with each other so messages can be exchanged between them. In a moment, the idea of email is born. Never mind that this is 1971 and its adoption as a global form of communication is at least 20 years away.
Never mind, too, that these young teenagers would be of nearly pensionable age today; they look and behave like kids from here and now. Steven Dexter’s production doesn’t quite solve this anachronism, nor a frankly baffling second act opening scene that’s like a surreal fancy dress cabaret.
There is a Fame-meets-High School Musical-meets Glee sensibility, at once knowing and ironic yet also sincere, of youth finding its feet amid casual betrayals of friendship and love. But if the book also still needs some internal clarification, there’s no doubting the sheer verve and nerve of the pounding score, with its guitar riffs and drum beats that have been stunningly arranged by Martin Lowe, or of its choreographic expression in Nick Winston’s galvanising and angular dance moves.
Francis O’Connor’s set of giant moving panels, decked out with lights like an old computer circuit board, is complemented by wittily drawn pop-up flats to set scenes, giving it a comic book feeling that’s effective but sometimes at odds with the underlying seriousness of dramatic purpose.
A brilliant company of vibrant young talent give it their considerable all; not since Spring Awakening have I seen so much terrific ability in one place. If Gareth Gates is the putative headliner, portraying a man trying to claim credit for something that isn’t his, it is in fact very much Sidwell’s show as the geek who proves, with girlfriend Holly (Eliza Hope Bennett), that he has changed the world. So, in time, might this musical.