Youth Music Theatre UK’s production of the new musical What I Go to School For – The Busted Musical is much like the titular band itself; entirely without subtlety, depth or nuance, but possessed of such energy and ramshackle, rambunctious charm it’s difficult not to warm to.
The show is based around the broadly drawn story of hit pop band Busted (and those unfamiliar with their history might be surprised by just how successful they were). It’s co-written by the band’s founding member James Bourne and his regular collaborator Elliot Davis who wrote the book and new songs, and with whom Bourne wrote Loserville and Out There.
Taken from Bourne’s own experiences as a teenager whose ambitions exceeded the horizons of his Southend-on-Sea hometown, the piece has a lot of fun with the machinations of the fame industry, from boyband auditions where everyone is simply a number judged on looks alone, to the gruelling schedule of success, so regimented that even toilet breaks are timetabled in. But the fact that Busted – recently reunited and touring – are back together and a band very much still playing the fame game means the production’s claws remain sheathed, the story sanitised. Nobody is to blame for them breaking up (who can fault Charlie for wanting to play different music? Especially since demonising him might damage those reunion tour revenues). Nobody behaved too badly (some flashy car shopping, a glossed over one night stand and a swig of vodka is pretty much all the rock and roll excess on display). This is all very nice – they seem decent lads, I’m happy for them – but it’s not exactly the makings of great drama. A hardly original jab at Simon Cowell’s trousers and an admittedly delicious joke about A Very Famous Actor is as risqué as it gets – this is very much the Saturday morning kids TV show version of the downside of fame.
As with Loserville, the writing can occasionally be smart and funny, but also has a tendency to be shallow and slapdash. Supporting roles are all plucked straight from the pages of the Big Book of Sitcom Clichés – a beer-swilling, loutish stepfather for Matt, a confused comedy granny for James, an earnest indie girlfriend for Charlie – although the large cast performs with verve and likeability. It also suffers from a syndrome common to shows about bands that need to pad out or shape the story with original material, with the new songs faring badly against the established hits. Whatever your views on Busted, they were purveyors of insanely catchy pop songs – beside those earworm chart toppers, the additional material feels instantly forgettable.
But despite all this, it’s a hard show not to like. It’s a tightly run piece with virtually no slack, and director Steven Dexter captures the naïve and infectious enthusiasm of the band, as well as the hysteria surrounding them at their peak, aided by Sarah Oxley’s surprisingly elegant and flexible set. The leading trio are enormously engaging – Joseph Riley nicely captures Bourne’s nerdy affability and Roman Lewis nails Charlie Simpson’s lanky sincerity and tendency to take himself a little too seriously, while Zak Robinson’s Matt Willis is a mixed up kid whose tightly wound teenage angst has an almost androgynous allure, all tight jeans and David Bowie cheekbones.
It’s by no means a classic in the making, but even those with only a passing acquaintance with the band’s back catalogue – you’ll recognise more songs than you think, I promise – can’t fail to be swept along by the production’s youthful energy and undemanding amiability.