I had fleetingly seen good feedback about this show and had heard that despite this it was due to close early – and so, with the unexpected opportunity to see a couple of London shows shortly after New Year, we thought it would be worth a try. After I’d booked the tickets, I saw an advert on the underground for it, where it was described as “Grease for the 21st century”. That worried me a bit. If you’ve read our reaction to the real Grease that we saw last April, you’ll understand my concern.
I can appreciate the comparison. There’s a bunch of older school kids teeming with hormones and you can split them into bespectacled geeky nerds (our heroes) and spoilt, bullying, shallow, good looking Grease-types (the baddies). Into this mix arrives the geeky but fanciable Holly – an outsider with a past as it turns out, and in Grease terms, she is Sandy. The baddies blackmail Holly into betraying her nerdy friends, but she double-crosses them at the end, and good prevails. That’s where it really departs from Grease, as Loserville is actually a very moral tale. In Grease, selling out leads to success. In Loserville, honesty is the best policy, be loyal to your friends, act for the good of society, and you will win the day. Cheats don’t prosper in Loserville.
It’s all set in a 1971 technical college, although there’s nothing Please, Sir! or To Sir With Love about Francis O’Connor’s lively set, which reminded me of a cross between Happy Days (Richie Cunningham’s as opposed to Samuel Beckett’s), and Tron. Mathematics whizzkid Michael Dork (note the subtle use of surname) is on the brink of creating the first email and all he’s missing, were he but to know it, is the final ampersand. His best mate is trying to write a book set in space and populated with characters called Leia, C3PO, and other similarly recognisable monikers. His name is Lucas Lloyd (note the subtle use of first name). Dork and his awkward pals have just discovered girls and their loins are positively throbbing at the prospect of putting theory into practice, but they have yet to learn the art of “asking out”. The baddies, of course, all exude sexual confidence and probably learned the art of seduction through the placenta. When Holly turns up, she is distinctly dorky but at the same time sassy too, so is the perfect fuel for Michael’s cockpit. She starts to help him find the email missing link but it’s not long before they get a thang going on; and while supporting chums Francis and Marvin pillock around with pretend spaceships and a similarly barmy lady enters their life, no one wants to go out for Thursday night bowling with Lucas, who is left home alone.
For me, this was a stumbling block in the storyline. Gentle reader, I have been Lucas. I have been that stalwart gang member, who without noticing it, discovers that his best pal and everyone else in the set have moved on to pastures new, and, sadly, he has been left behind. No, please don’t cry for me, I’m well over it now. Lucas’ solution to the problem is to get angry (yes I understand that) and then betray his friends (no! There’s no way he would do that!) Lucas reveals how to break into the safe that holds the details of Michael and Holly’s research to the ne’er-do-well Eddie’s henchmen, Eddie being too lazy and thick to come up with the science that will gain him a lucrative position in Dad’s business. Lucas does this in exchange for a half-arsed promise of book publication. Realising his manuscript has been dumped and that he has been well duped, Lucas eventually gets reintegrated with the gang and – also extraordinarily unlikely – ends up with Eddie’s ex-girlfriend. I’m sorry, I just think that whole sequence of events is ridiculously unlikely! I also found the “laughing at foreign accents” sequences – with the two Yugoslav girls struggling sexily with their English – immensely tedious, but that’s just me; remembering that dreadful old TV programme “Mind Your Language”, it’s probably a highly accurate represention of what was funny in 1971.
These aspects of the storyline aside, it’s an entertaining tale and performed with huge commitment and style. The young and talented cast perform their socks off and the songs, written by ex-Busted member James Bourne, are all very jolly and accessible. To my ears, they all sound like variations of Busted’s “Year 3000”, but that’s ok. The last song of the first half is the very catchy “Ticket Outta Loserville”, which audience members in the interval bar couldn’t resist but sing along to whilst quaffing a Cabernet Sauvignon. This is all good stuff.
There is another problem though – despite this huge enthusiasm on stage something about the show does not get conveyed to the stalls. It’s not as though you feel like an estranged onlooker, but that obvious joie-de-vivre on stage does not catch. It’s a little like that massive firework that you know is packed full of noise and colour, but whose blue touch paper simply won’t light; or like there’s an invisible firewall blocking the energy before it reaches the audience. I’ve thought about this a lot over the past week and I still can’t identify why. I would hate to think that it’s because I’m too old for the show – that couldn’t possibly be the reason. I did get a sense early on in the evening that I had missed out on some important piece of plotting and I worried slightly that I wasn’t going to understand what was happening – but as a problem that lasted no more than the first fifteen or twenty minutes. So it’s not that. For Mrs Chrisparkle the main problem for the show was that it wasn’t Hairspray. She felt it had the enviable possibility of turning into “Son Of Hairspray”, but regretfully it comes nowhere near that other show in terms of entertainment and engagement. It’s true – in the comparison stakes, Loserville is a bit of a loser there.
There’s a quite cute presentation of the cast at the beginning and to a lesser extent at the end of the show, where cast members hold a board with their character names and their own names on – or those of their friends – to identify who they are. If you’d known they were going to do that, you could have got away with not buying a programme. The sequence put me in mind of the opening credits of a TV show or film. It was inventively done in a cartoony and jocular style and was rather amusing to watch. Brecht would have loved it.
The whole thing was charmingly done, and I reckon the majority of the cast – for whom many Loserville was either their professional debut or not far behind it – will go on to have excellent stage careers. Aaron Sidwell as Michael was a superb geeky hero, with a slick stage presence and a great feel for the song and dance; Eliza Hope Bennett as Holly brought out all aspects of the character really well and was extremely watchable throughout; Richard Lowe as Lucas had just the right amount of goofiness and vulnerability to shine in his role; and Stewart Clarke conveyed brilliantly the vain despicability of Eddie – we loved his curtain call dressed in combats. Don’t forget the band – six guys who filled the sound waves like musical geniuses. I wonder if, with a little tweaking, this could come back another day?