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Review: 42 Balloons (The Lowry)

Review by Daz Gale

 

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

 

We are living in a golden age for new British musicals with Operation Mincemeat and Two Strangers (Carry A Cake Across New York)  wowing audiences in the West End at the moment following runs in smaller houses. Shows like them prove it is always worth looking further afield to see what could be the next big thing, and a trip to Salford at the moment only reaffirms that as 42 Balloons flies into The Lowry for its fully staged premiere. Having already created a buzz and gained its own fanbase, could 42 Balloons soar to dizzying heights or would it come crashing back to Earth?



First seen in a series of semi-staged concerts at London’s Vaudeville Theatre in 2022, 42 Balloons tells the remarkable and unbelievable true story of Larry Walters who, on 2nd July 1982, fulfilled his unconventional dream of flying using only a lawnchair with 42 weather balloons attached to it. In this musical, we witness his life leading up to that magical moment, the flight itself, and the aftermath and repercussions it had on not only him but his loved ones.

 

It is this narrative that makes 42 Balloons such a compelling watch. In his writing, Jack Godfrey could have easily written a show leading up to Larry’s journey and left it there. The choice to delve further into Larry’s story post-flight is an inspired touch – one that adds a lot more weight and depth to the story, sending it in surprising and, at times, emotional routes. Godfrey’s writing is warm, witty, and joyously captivating with a knack for travelling directly into your heart and pulling at your emotions to make an initially unrelatable story resonate with you as the overarching message of chasing your dreams becomes apparent.

 


My one mild criticism of 42 Balloons is that sometimes the dialogue doesn’t work, feeling a bit too heavy-handed or shoehorned in with moments of inconsistency. Large parts of plot exposition and intricate details of how this happened lead to large chunks of text rapidly forced into the predominantly sung-through musical – while this is largely funny the first couple of times, it is overdone throughout and had me wondering if these moments needed to be sung when spoken dialogue could have felt more natural and perhaps landed the humour of these better.

 

The sung-through nature of 42 Balloons also makes some of the songs blend into each other, preventing them from defining themselves and letting them be as distinct as they deserve. This can lead to repetitive moments when many of these glorious songs deserve their own breathing space with a distinct beginning and end. Also written by Godfrey, the pulsing 80s-inspired soundtrack is full of cleverly written songs, with a sense of familiarity many of which are immediately catchy. Act two opener ’42 Balloons And A Lawn Chair’ is a rousing highlight and a perfect example of what this show can do at its best, with tongue-in-cheek self-referencing and characters breaking the fourth wall regularly telling audience members to look it up and reaffirming what they are seeing is true adding to the sense of fun,

 


With its original score one of the biggest strengths of 42  Balloons, it does struggle with several moments that feel far too close to other musicals such as the song ‘1982’ veering far too close into Hamilton territory – with a style so similar, it risks being a soundalike. Other moments risk feeling eerily similar to other existing musicals such as Larry’s stunning 11 o'clock number ‘Up And Away’ which perplexingly turns into ‘Words Fail’ from Dear Evan Hansen halfway through. In the moments when 42 Balloons proves its originality, it is a wonderful success and demonstrates Godfrey’s phenomenal talent for music and lyrics – it is just a shame a few moments did fall flat as this would have surely taken this show to the next level.

 

Charlie McCcullagh reprises his lead role of Larry from the Vaudeville staged concert, bringing a new level of brilliance to the already impressive role. Played with a great deal of sensitivity and a seemingly great understanding of the man himself, Charlie delivers a sensational performance, rich and varied in its approach. Understated when he needs to be and deflated at times (now is probably a good time to say that every pun in this review is very much intended), he brings charm and nuance to the character with his wonderful performance, not to mention stunning vocals present throughout on numbers such as ‘Big Balloon’ and ‘Up And Away’.



Also returning to the show is Evelyn Hoskins as Larry’s girlfriend, Carol. Bringing something different to the story from her arrival, Evelyn brings new depths to the story as we watch how Larry’s actions affected her and the part she had to play in the story. With a warm and loving portrayal, it is Evelyn’s vocals that truly soar, bringing the show to new heights, especially on two of the strongest numbers of the show ‘Up In The Air’ and the breathtakingly beautiful ‘Helium’. While at its heart this is Larry’s story, Evelyn makes sure Carol gets more than her fair share, turning this into a two-star vehicle.

 

Gillian Hardie gives a scene-stealing turn as Carol’s mom with her soulful solo ‘Somebody’s Story’ bringing the house down in a musical highlight of the evening. Lejaun Sheppard delights in his turn as Larry’s friend and cameraman Roy with a hard-working ensemble covering every inch of the stage with gorgeous talent in roles such as The Kid, and David Letterman. Having four of the ensemble dominate the standout act two opening number was an inspired and refreshing touch, giving them a moment to showcase their own talents front and centre.

 


If there is one element to this production of 42 Balloons that really wows, it is in the production value itself. A truly sensational, initially sparse, and almost futuristic-looking set design by Milla Clarke transforms the stage of The Quay Theatre in The Lowry to a claustrophobic skate ramp – almost a blank canvas for some truly inspired and high-tech video design from Andrzej Goulding. With a mix of live filming, animations, and pre-recorded videos, it is one of the greatest uses of video design I have seen in the last year, with a constantly varied and always flawlessly executed dynamic. Beautifully complemented by Bruno Poet’s lighting, the entire aesthetic of 42 Balloons was awe-inspiring. Fresh and original in its approach, all creatives sharing one singular vision worked wonders here, leading to a production that was always visually exciting.

 

Ellie Coote’s direction takes these elements and brings them higher with precise and playful choices throughout. With clearly no shortage of ideas on hand, 42 Balloons strikes the balance of never feeling too busy while allowing a constant barrage of directive choices to elevate the performances and make the story land safely and effectively. This is most apparent in the truly creative and impressive Letterman sequence, bringing live filming in to create one of the most memorable and flawless sequences of the show. Alexzandra Sarmiento’s wonderful choreography also manages this, popping with Larry’s dorky dancing to the ensemble’s every movement bringing new levels to the visual aesthetic of the show.

 


In 42 Balloons, we are witnessing the birth of something special. I had that sense when I caught the semi-staged concert in London 18 months ago, but in traveling to Salford for its fully staged debut, it has reached new heights. It isn’t perfect yet but that is all part of the fun of the journey and, as in Larry’s story, unexpected and unplanned events may happen along the way but that doesn’t stop the overall outcome from being a resounding success. At its best, this beautiful story brings something different to theatre and is managing to carve out its own identity. I would be very surprised if we don’t see this in the West End within the next year and it would very much be deserved. After all, when it comes to this uplifting show, the sky’s the limit.

 

42 Balloons plays at the Lowry in Salford until 19th May. Tickets from https://thelowry.com/whats-on/42-balloons/

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