After only a few minutes of watching this new musical, a transfer from the West Yorkshire Playhouse, one is literally underwhelmed by a powerful sense of déjà vu. Set in an American high school with jock-type bullies making the lives of more vulnerable students a living hell is a well-trodden, but presumably profitable path. But has that path become stale?
'Loserville' takes us back to 1971 and the pre-internet days – hard to believe as it might be, there was indeed such a time when we had to go to libraries and look in real books for information, and we had to write out communications with a strange implement called a pen, put them into contrivances called envelopes and wait several days for someone to get our message. However, a geeky kid called Michael Dork has a vision for the future which will change all of that. He wants to get computers talking to each other – inspirational or what? But he is frustrated in his research and coding when he is banned from using the school computer room. Fortunately his salvation materialises in the guise of a new girl called Holly who arrives at the school at an opportune moment. Holly has brains as well as looks and Michael recruits her to assist him in cracking the code to make computers chat with each other. Of course, Michael falls for Holly, falls out with one of his best friends, is victim to conniving and betrayal, but manages, of course, to win through in the end.
Now the idea of a geeky kid developing code to aid mass communication might not have been used before, but the American high school setting has been pretty much done to death, so that it now seems about as fresh and appealing as a bad case of halitosis. In spite of that lack of originality in the storyline, Francis O'Connor rises magnificently to the challenge of injecting a dose of creativity into the proceedings with his novel and impressive design. Pencils and pads figure prominently, as though the early days of computing relied more on old technology than the new. Pencils are used for all manner of things like serving spoons in the cafeteria and the base of a bed. The stage is covered with those squiggly lines which we now instantly recognise as the pathways on a computer chip, and large sheets of notepaper are held by the cast to create new scenes. Not only does the design approach add real sparkle and interest to the show, it actually serves to propel it forwards papering-over the less imaginative elements, especially the rather lacklustre dialogue.
'Loserville' certainly has masses of energy, more than enough to light a few towns for a day or two, at the very least I would think. The cast are enthusiastic and generally well-directed by Steven Dexter, even if their accents drift from small town USA, to large town, England, occasionally. The choreography is polished, and the music is vibrant and catchy, though I couldn't find anything really memorable or striking in the musical numbers. Thankfully, though, the show has few pretensions to be anything other than it is. And there is a cartoon-like feel to the whole endeavour, as though it has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek. So, it is not exactly masquerading as gritty drama or anything vaguely along those lines. But the script rather lets it down. There is little real wit in any of the lines, and potentially humorous scenes fall flat – I didn't catch what seemed to be the funniest line of the night when many of the audience laughed, but otherwise there were few gags which brought more than a few odd chuckles.
Maybe there is still a real thirst for school-based musicals, even ones set in American schools. But it is rather sad that 'Loserville' has on the one hand enormously high production values, but fails to inject some real creativity and novelty into what, for me at least, matters most: the story and the dialogue. However good it might look, there's still a whiff of underlying staleness.
"The plot is woolly, and the material seems like a mishmash of moments from every teen romantic comedy I’ve ever seen. But Bourne and Davis are undoubtedly skilful songwriters, and Loserville is likeable even if it’s unsubtle. "
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"The songs, on a first hearing, all sound more or less the same and are pounded out with bludgeoning loudness in Steven Dexter's soulless production. The cast leap about hyper-actively but, apart from the odd sequence (such as a Judo match between the geeks and the jocks) there is not much charm in all this robotic freneticism."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Shows don't get much perkier than this...it carries the message of many an American teen movie - that the geeks will triumph in the end - but it's also knowing and sprinkled with humour which makes it rather endearing. "
Julie Carpenter for The Daily Express
"With its rudimentary plot and forgettable tunes, this musical is an unrewarding experience."
Ian Shuttleworth for The Financial Times
"As bubblegum musicals go, it's worth a pop."
Robert Shore for The Metro
"Steven Dexter’s cartoon-like production is relentlessly and brash and for much of the evening I found myself gazing longingly at the exit sign, desperate to escape this derivative pop-culture pap. The one thing that can be said in Loserville’s favour is that its off-putting title tells you all you need to know about the show."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph