Garrick Theatre, London
Book, music and lyrics by Elliot Davis and James Bourne
Director: Steven Dexter
This review was first published in The Public Reviews
|Eliza Hope Bennett and Aaron Sidwell in the Planetarium|
Staged on an amusingly “low-tech/hi-tech” melee of printed circuit boards, this all-American story – played out in the 1970s – follows teenager Michael Dork, a geeky, youthful, Bill Gates-type character, as he discovers the foundation of internet computer connectivity. Along the way he encounters love, betrayal, jealousy and rivalry, not to mention the villainous scheming of the local rich-kid bully, out to steal his invention. Francis O’Connor’s design, with oversized pencils and notepads, suggests a Matilda, albeit one for high school kids, and the whole visual impression is that of a retro cartoon-style America, in which the digital age has yet to take off.
Responsible for the music and lyrics, as well as the book, are Elliott Davis and James Bourne. Bourne was the creative force behind the UK band Busted and to those familiar with his recordings, the style of his compositions will not disappoint. He has a clever eye and ear for the nuances, angsts and frustrations of teenage life and the songs Don’t Let ‘Em Bring You Down and The Little Things provide amusing vehicles which not only portray the boys’ awkwardness but also describe the teenage girls’ recognition of the testosterone fuelled course that boys typically chart through adolescence. Whilst the bouncing Busted tone and sometimes smutty lyrics are a guilty pleasure to which to listen, the plot does occasionally become more reflective, though plaintive number We’re Not Alone, set in the town’s (beautifully lit) planetarium, fails to move in the way that the writers would have intended. Steven Dexter has directed a show that is a fun and imaginative night out, but is nonetheless a tale that lacks a central passion. The plot pales in comparison with, say, the grand celebration of human diversity that was the bedrock underlying Hairspray. It feels simply too hard, and actually too geeky, for the audience to care too much about the invention of email.
Aaron Sidwell leads the line as Dork, and whilst his acting is convincing, his voice lacks a smoothness that one might expect from a West End production. No doubt as the production settles into its run his vocal performance will mature. Lucas Lloyd is Dork’s closest buddy, and Richard Lowe in this role, presents the most moving portrayal of social inadequacy of the night. His solo number Holly, I’m The One, in which he painfully pines for the girl who Dork is romancing, is perceptive and poignant. As Holly, Eliza Hope Bennett is both convincing and impressive to listen to whilst Charlotte Harwood’s performance as the bitchy girl Leia is also a fun caricature to savour. The astonishing performance of the night however is delivered by NYMT alumnus Stewart Clarke as bad guy Eddie, not only making his professional and West End debut, but filling the shoes of Gareth Gates who had created the role in Leeds. It may well be easier to act the villain, oozing pecs, sex and charisma, but Clarke owns the stage with powerful delivery and superbly controlled poise.
This ball of candy floss of a show undoubtedly makes a fun family treat. Nick Winston’s clever choreography delights and the production will appeal to both those old enough to remember the 70s and those young enough to enjoy the clever songs of Bourne and Davis.
Runs until 2nd March