42 Balloons

Jack Godfrey, book, music and lyrics
Andy and Wendy Barnes, Global Musicals, Kevin McCollum, The Lowry, Debbie Hicks, Sam Levy, S&Co and Kenny Wax
The Lowry, Salford

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42 Balloons Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
42 Balloons Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
42 Balloons Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
42 Balloons Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
42 Balloons Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
42 Balloons Credit: Pamela Raith Photography

We all indulge in the occasional bit of fantasising—I’m convinced Taylor Swift will never really be happy until she meets me. Few of us cross the line and try to make our fantasies reality, but that is the subject of Jack Godfrey’s new musical 42 Balloons, based, incredibly, on a true-life incident.

When, in the 1970s, poor eyesight results in Larry Walters (Charlie McCullagh) being rejected as a test pilot, his dream of flying pops like a balloon—which gives him an idea. Over the next decade, Walters gradually convinces his girlfriend Carol Van Deusen (Evelyn Hoskins) and her even more sceptical Mom (Gillian Hardie) it is possible to fly by tying an ordinary household object—a lawn chair—to 42 weather balloons filled with helium.

The launch in 1982 does not go entirely to plan—the safety line tethering Larry to the ground snaps causing his homespun vehicle to ascend well beyond the planned height and he drops the air pistol which was intended pop the balloons and ensure a safe, phased descent. Having survived the flight, however, Larry cannot cope with the wider world not sharing his self-perception, and his relationship with Carol comes under strain.

42 Balloons is promoted as a musical, which is modest as it is closer to an opera—almost every word is sung. The bulk of the events occur in the 1980s, a decade which provides inspiration for both the music and the staging. Jack Godfrey is a triple-threat, writing not only the book but also the music and lyrics. The songs are an affectionate pastiche of 1980s power ballads, from time to time tunes very similar to "Eye of the Tiger" or "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" are belted out by a live five-piece band. The lyrics address the central question nagging at the audience—why on earth anyone would want to take such a risk?—sung in a breathless, gosh-wow style like a tabloid come to life.

Director / dramaturg Ellie Coote stages the musical like an Hi-NRG MTV video. An excellent eight-person ensemble is dressed by Natalie Pryce in overalls suitable for an airport ground crew but in garish colours and sweatbands as if they have stepped out of a pop video.

The walls of Milla Clarke’s ingenious set curve like a skateboard park, allowing the energetic cast to make spectacular leaps and bounds or perch on strategically placed grips. The opening of the show is breathtaking, with the stage curtain opening from a square hole in the centre to gradually reveal the ensemble staring in awe at the lawn chair and balloons. All that is missing is the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Charlie McCullagh plays Larry as someone motivated by desperation rather than self-delusion. It is clear he simply must fly. Having achieved his goal, McCullagh steps to the rear of the stage and dons a leather aviator jacket and sunglasses, completely fulfilling Larry’s self-image as a pilot and seeming for the first time to be totally content and at peace. Bravely, McCullagh does not hide from the less appealing aspects of Larry’s personality, which become apparent when he appears on a TV show and takes himself too seriously, being unable to accept other people might see him as a whacky eccentric or object of derision rather than a pioneer.

The tone of the musical gradually darkens. Act one is largely sympathetic towards Larry and staged in a light-hearted manner—when Larry begins explaining his calculations for his flight, the ensemble cheerfully chants, "maths montage" like bored schoolchildren. In the second act, however, Larry’s flawed character becomes more apparent—selfishly blaming Carol (who has supported him emotionally and financially) for his difficulty coping with life post-flight.

Gillian Hardie is a superb vocalist who steals every scene in which she appears, but the tragic aspects of the musical are carried by Evelyn Hoskins. If Larry has a child-like enthusiasm, then his girlfriend Carol is forced to be an adult—finding the funds to pay for his harebrained project and coping with the aftermath. Hoskins shows Carol’s torment and sacrifice, desperately seeking ways to pay back loans taken out to pay for the flight while knowing Larry will not appreciate her actions and will even, from his high moral outlook, regard them as betrayal.

42 Balloons is more satisfyingly complex than an inspirational feelgood story. The cautionary approach taken by author Jack Godfrey reminds the audience the single-mindedness needed to make a dream reality must be balanced with empathy. Sheffield Theatres have had national and international success with Everybody's Talking About Jamie and Life of Pi, which started out local, whereas Manchester has a reputation for rowdy audiences and an inability to open a major venue on the scheduled date. The dazzling quality of 42 Balloons may go some way to redressing this situation—which would be a fantasy come true.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

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