Out There continues at the Union Theatre, London until 8 October.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
After the success of its 2015 revival of Loserville, which earned itself a rare second run later the same year, the Union Theatre is justly enamoured of the musical writings of Elliot Davis and James Bourne. Now the theatre follows up the frenetic high school tale with the duo’s altogether more sobering work Out There, first performed in 2011 by Youth Music Theatre UK.
Davis and Bourne’s book revolves around troubled teenager Logan (Luke Street) who, on the run from the police and his turbulent relationship with his father, is despatched by his aunt to the struggling Texas town of Hope, and the guardianship of the irascible Ned (Dave Willetts).
Ned’s farm is at the centre of the town’s hopes for financial rescue, with the town’s sheriff (Melissa Veszi) leading the campaign to get Ned to sell his acreage to a chemical company that promises to deliver the community a substantial windfall.
Just before the end of Act I, Logan discovers that ‘Ned’ is in fact his grandfather, Newman Carter, who was an astronaut in the 1960s before disappearing after his wife was killed in a car accident. And the barn on his farm is housing a self-built rocket, in which the ailing Ned is intending to blast off for one last flight…
There are plenty of times where Out There’s premise is, well, out there in terms of plausibility. And yet recent events, with Tesla’s Elon Musk and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos both pouring billions into their own space flight research, make what were more fantastical elements in 2011 become rather more relevant five years later as privately funded space vehicles become a reality.
That said, dealing with space flight and rocket building on a Fringe theatre budget is always going to require a leap of imagination.
Director Michael Burgen, working with designer Nik Corrall, opts for a shabby, home-made feel to the aesthetic, with oil-tinged cardboard boxes proliferating.
Burgen also makes the wise choice to slightly rearrange the Union’s seating, forming an L shape around a reduced stage area that makes a feature of, rather than ignoring, the space’s idiosyncratic staircase.
Everything combines to provide one of the most effective uses of the Union’s new space yet – even when Burgen’s attempts to use every inch of available floorspace find themselves working against the new seating arrangement.
The new configuration lends a musical balance between the cast’s strong voices and the band, led by musical director Joe Louis Robinson. And that allows Davis and Bourne’s country-tinged songs to really shine.
Several of their numbers are hardly likely to win prizes for originality, with lyrics ranging from the clichéd to the predictable. But the melodies are always engaging, and with the composers sharing writing duties throughout, the songs and plots flow together with a welcome grace.
One or two numbers really stand out – Act I’s ‘Space’, for example, which should be part of every male musical singer’s cabaret set, and Act II opener ‘Things Are Looking Up’, with an infectious percussive beat delivered by the entire ensemble.
Hiring such an experienced musical stalwart as Dave Willetts really lends a gravitas to the grizzled Ned. His is a role that is lighter on singing than one might expect – but Willetts really sells his growing relationship with his grandson, and his delivery of the romantic ‘Learn to Dance’ is worth the wait. When he finally joins with Street and Neil Moors as Logan’s father, the three generations of men provide a powerful sense of redemption and reconciliation.
The rest of the impressive ensemble – led by a charming turn by Imelda Warren-Green as mechanic (and Logan’s love interest) Jamie – help contribute to a charming rustic fantasy.
It’s unlikely to engage with audiences quite as strongly and immediately as Loserville did, but it firmly places Elliot Davis and James Bourne as a musical theatre partnership whose names guarantee an evening of quality entertainment.