Remember Son Of Dork? It’s unlikely really, unless you were a hardcore fan of Busted. The trio were, at one stage, the biggest boy band in the country, until Charlie Simpson left to form a hard rock band and Matt Willis decided to become a TV star. The third member, James Bourne, stayed on the pop-punk path: the result was Son Of Dork. They released just the one album, Welcome To Loserville, in 2005 and quietly split up a couple of years later.
Now, seven years since that album was released, it’s provided the unlikely inspiration for this brand new musical. Although decidedly not a ‘jukebox musical’, there are several Son Of Dork songs featured while Bourne and collaborator Elliot Davis have also contributed a selection of new songs which fit in perfectly and give the piece some narrative momentum.
Set in 1970s America, Loserville‘s protagonist Michael Dork is a ‘geek in a garage’ who spends his time with his three friends, getting bullied by the ‘jocks’ at high school and obsessing over Star Trek. Michael’s ambition is to create some code that will enable the world’s first email to be sent, and when new girl Holly arrives at school, he falls head over heels for her. They begin to work on creating the elusive code, but school bully Eddie gets wind of their scheme, blackmails Holly and claims the idea as his own.
So far, so predictable, but Loserville is performed with so much energy and verve that you can’t help but fall under its spell. It’s light and frothy, and the songs obviously aren’t going to give Stephen Sondheim any sleepless nights, but it’s done with conviction and charm.
The large cast (who, in a nice touch, introduce themselves at the start with their own name cards during a ‘credits’ sequence) is led by former Eastender Aaron Sidwell, as Michael, while former Pop Idol Gareth Gates plays against type as Eddie Arch, the high school jock who proves to be Michael’s nemesis. Although Gates may be a bit old now to be playing a schoolboy, his experience in musical theatre stands him in good stead here, and the singing voice that charmed Pete Waterman and company ten years ago is still strong.
There are also amusing turns from Chris Hardman aka Lil Chris and Daniel Buckley as Michael’s best friends, but the standout performance is that of Eliza Hope Bennett, as Holly, who not only has a fantastic singing voice, but imbues the role with real sense of vulnerability and loneliness.
Bourne and Davis’ script avoids cliché for the most part, and there’s a nice self-deprecating quality to the whole production (at one point, Gates’ character is told “in the future, they’ll actually be TV programmes which make stars out of people who have no talent at all”), while there’s a lovely running gag in which Michael’s friend Lucas, who’s writing a sci-fi book, keeps accidentally inventing the characters from Star Wars.
Director Stephen Dexter ensures the production is well paced and zippy; he’s aided in this regard by Bourne’s songs which are catchy, memorable, and make good use of reprises and callbacks. If pop-punk (and the emphasis is very much on pop rather than punk) isn’t your thing, then this might not be for you, but the music is a good fit for the light-hearted narrative, and in the case of songs like Brains And Looks, Holly I’m The One and Ticket Outta Loserville, you might just find you’re humming them several days later. Most importantly though, and in contrast with many jukebox musicals, the story and the characters are the most important thing here; the music serves the narrative not the other way around.
The stage design is bright and bold with oversized props and colourful drawings on cards. That, together with the opening and closing ‘credits sequence’ give Loserville an appealing cartoon-like feel. The production as a whole maybe about as deep as a puddle, but it works incredibly well on its own terms – one could see it appealing to fans of Glee and The Big Bang Theory – and I wouldn’t be surprised if it had a life longer than this initial run.