Loserville continues at the Union Theatre, London until 21 March.
Star rating: 3 stars ★ ★ ★
James Bourne and Elliot Davis’ musical, originally performed by Youth Music Theatre UK before a West Yorkshire Playhouse production that briefly visited the West End in 2012, is one of the most musically accessible of recent British musicals. The Son of Dork album Welcome to Loserville was the first project Bourne undertook after the break-up of his first group Busted. And while he has continued songwriting for himself and other bands, and is currently touring with guitar ‘supergroup’ McBusted, Son of Dork’s 2005 album and this musical, which reworks many of those songs, remain his greatest achievement, a pop delight that reeks with the confidence of youth.
Transferring the cheery, cheesy guitar aesthetic to a cliché-filled American high school in 1971, Loserville charts the attempts of computer geek Michael Dork and his Star Trek-obsessed friends to beat the local computer company in the race to invent computer-to-computer email. In the cartoon world Dork inhabits, all the high school students are either geeks, nerds, cheerleaders or jocks, and this aesthetic is ably reflected in the Union Theatre’s production design, all mathematical equations, blackboards and primary-coloured blocks.
It is within Michael’s fellow nerds that the casting works best. Sandy Grigelis and Matthew Harvey’s comedy sidekick routines steal every scene they are in, while Jordan Fox’s Lucas is the standout performance of the musical. The geeky writer who also falls for the protagonist’s girlfriend Holly (Holly-Anne Hull) and ultimately betrays them both for the promise of getting his sci-fi novel published, Fox is given the best dramatic arc of the whole show, and imbues every little moment with everything he’s got.
But in several ways, that so much falls upon Fox’s capable shoulders is both the biggest problem with Loserville’s structure, and this production’s saving grace. As Michael Dork, Luke Newton performs admirably between songs, but as soon as the music starts, his voice gets lost beneath both the band and the larger ensemble. To some extent, that’s a byproduct of the Union’s unamplified voices competing with electric guitars and drums. Certainly, there are other ensemble members – including Lewis Bradley, the former Any Dream Will Do contestant and the show’s most notable ‘name’, who plays bad guy Eddie – who also struggle to be heard at times. But there are others, including Fox and ‘jocks’ Ryan Ridley and Charlie Kendall, who demonstrate that it is possible to remain audible without the use of microphones.
It is, then, a real shame that the vocal performances don’t match up to the quality of the rest of the production. Matt Krzan’s effervescent choreography delights throughout, capturing the enthusiasm and verve of the score better than Nick Winston’s work in the criminally short 2012 West End run. And in his debut production as director, Michael Burgen has overseen a fun, if flawed, evening of pop-rock geekery.