42 Balloons

Heading to see a new musical is always an exciting prospect, and thankfully my trip to The Lowry in Salford to see 42 Balloons by Jack Godfrey was well worth the journey.

Based on the true story of Larry Walters, a man desperate to be a pilot, but due to his poor eyesight could not realise his dream the conventional way. He had an idea to attach 42 weather balloons to a lawn chair to see if he could fly.  If you don't believe me, you can look online yourself! This is not just a story of madness, but one of hope, self-discovery and self-worth which translated beautifully onto the stage.  

As the curtains open, we are greeted with a plain white stage resembling the inside of a balloon with curved staging that enabled the cast to run up and down.  Milla Clarke did a wonderful job taking us straight into Larry’s world without the need for anything more fancy or consisting of multiple set pieces.  The white space was often filled with impressive projections by Andrzej Goulding and live filming of scenes, which seems to be more and more popular in the world of theatre at the moment, however it wasn’t overused and kept the action on stage at the forefront.

The ensemble cast of this production are the beating heart, working tirelessly throughout.  Each of them had a moment to shine with lines being shared between them.  We must talk about the beautiful vocals they also provided, with harmonies tighter than an elastic band.  It was very clear that a lot of preparation and rehearsal had gone into creating this stunning wall of sound.  Stand out moments came during the opening number of Act 2 ’42 Balloons And A Lawn Chair’, especially the vocals provided by Morgan Gregory who commanded the stage each time he appeared with a confident performance and wonderful stage presence.

Charlie McCullagh as Larry and Evelyn Hoskins as Carol had the most believable chemistry I’ve seen for a long time.  Every moment they performed together was really special and bought a tenderness to the story.  Initially Carol doesn’t really understand Larry’s need to take flight in this crazy way, but soon becomes to realise that his happiness depended on whether he would be able to realise his dream and drift away to higher climbs.  She therefore takes it upon herself to raise the money needed ($15,000 in this case) so Larry could achieve what he had been dreaming of for years.  Hoskins’ voice is that of a god given talent and I could have listened to her all afternoon.  Matched with McCullagh’s incredible vocal, they really did make beautiful music together.

Another stand out performer for me was Gillian Hardie as Carol’s Mum. With cocktail in hand, she appears on stage to let her feelings be known about Larry and his mad idea.  ‘Somebody’s Story’ was a masterclass in performance through song and Gillian’s voice was stunning, with a slightly raspy sound, her characterisation was fantastic, and it would have been great to hear another song utilising her unique voice as we only really got to hear it again during the reprise of ‘Somebody’s Story’ in Act 2.

Lejaun Sheppard as Larry’s friend Ron, who gets called upon to video the flight, also gives a confident performance.  With a Hamilton-esque sound to his solo number, Sheppard was able to deliver a strong vocal.

This show is practically sung through, which at times seemed slightly unnatural and adding in bits of spoken dialogue would enhance the experience from my point of view.  I was a bit unsure of the need for the show to be fully sung through.  Every song was also performed by speaking about themselves in the third person which gave a narration style to the show and a sense of breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience, another interesting directorial choice.

Aswell as writing the book for the show, Jack Godfrey also provides the music and lyrics.  There is a definite style to the pieces performed as they all have an 80’s vibe which is really infectious and moves the story along well.  The band, under the musical direction of Flynn Sturgeon are not visible until the end of Act 1 when the staging opens up to reveal them in all their glory.  The sound they provided throughout was fantastic and the songs really were memorable as you walked out of the theatre humming along.

As the years pass after Larry’s flight, his relationship breaks down and the story takes a sad turn (which I won’t go into too much detail about).  The emotional impact towards the end of the show was touching, but I feel that more could have been done during these moments to heighten the feelings of certain characters.  My only other real disappoint was that we didn’t actually get to see Larry fly off in his chair. I understand the logistics and health and safety implications may not allow it, but it felt like we had missed out on the central point of the story by not seeing it happen.  Maybe something to take on board as it undoubtedly gets a West End transfer, fingers crossed!

There is one thing for sure though, if new musical theatre is at this level already then we are in very safe hands as theatre lovers who yearn for new shows to excite, delight and inspire future audiences.  42 Balloons is a prime example of a show lifting new musical theatre to the highest heights!

This show was reviewed on the 4th May 2024 at The Lowry in Salford where it runs until the 19th May 2024.  Tickets available here: 42 Balloons | What's On | The Lowry

Review written by Emma Rowley


Photo credit: Pamela Raith

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