The story of a girlfriend-free high school geek who’s obsessed with getting computers to talk to one another, new tuner “Loserville” is like “The Social Network” rewritten by the Monkees. But before anyone reaches for their lawyers, not only does it partly derive from a 2005 Brit punk-pop album, the result is too generic for anyone to worry. Flagrantly witty production design and nonstop effort by a bust-a-gut cast cannot compensate for such slight material.
As “Clueless” proved, it’s possible simultaneously to celebrate and eviscerate high school mores. But to achieve that you need the kind of authorial control missing here. It’s fine for writers Elliot Davis and James Bourne to set up their triumph-of-the-dork tale with a tone of bubblegum enthusiasm that yells “Not to Be Taken Seriously.” Yet the second half’s attempt at a blackmail plot and serious heartbreak shows they don’t have the courage of their lack of convictions.
It’s 1971 and Michael Dork (Aaron Sidwell) and his “Star Trek”-nerd friends are derided by jocks led by lamebrain Eddie (suitably hunky Stewart Clarke). Enter brainy new girl Holly (Eliza Hope Bennett in, yes, spectacles) who has been “cursed with brains and looks.” She wants to be the first female astronaut, one of umpteen potentially amusing ideas set up but never investigated. What’s important is that she knows about computers, which have just arrived.
Meanwhile, Michael’s best friend who’s writing a sci-fi adventure — his name’s Lucas, geddit? — steps aside to let love flourish, which it does until Eddie uses compromising photos of Holly — from where, doing what and do we care? — to get her to make him look computer-savvy in front of his rich dad. The book is so weak that the father is only present via a thundering voiceover. That worked in “A Chorus Line,” but that show had real structure.
Recognizing that the knowing storyline has no tension, helmer Stephen Dexter chooses to make almost everything uberperky. With the exception of a couple of anodyne songs about the pains of youth, the feel is exemplified by Nick Winston’s relentless, hyper-energetic, interchangeable choreography, all without development or depth. As a result, the entirely peppy cast, many fresh from drama school, manage to express little but technical skill and eagerness to please.
The major saving grace is the production design. Taking his cue from an era when the pre-computer era when the word “pad” didn’t have the prefix “i,” designer Francis O’Connor gives the show zest by having the cast conjure locations, backdrops and furniture via flipping over pages in the giant cartoon-like sketchpads they carry. The winning look is given a further edge and scale by Howard Harrison’s lighting, which goes into rock-concert mode whenever Martin Lowe’s strong arrangements for the guitar-led six-piece band lets rip.
Having been in boyband Busted and written for other pop bands, composer James Bourne has sold over 7 million records. As expected, the songs and their multiple reprises are efficient, but they lack variety and, crucially, personality. In the pop charts, the latter doesn’t matter. On stage, it does.
The show is clearly aimed at the huge audiences for the similar but infinitely sharper “The Big Bang Theory” and “Glee.” But those shows are free to view on TV. It’s hard to imagine that teens or twentysomething audiences will want to stump up West End prices for something that, no matter how hopeful, is sadly inferior.