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  • Henry Longstaff

42 Balloons - The Lowry

British Musical Theatre soars to new heights

42 Balloons a new musical - The Lowry
Photograhy - Pamela Raith


Following a rousingly successful run of staged concerts in late 2022, Jack Godfrey’s original musical has touched down in Manchester for the first time as a fully-fledged production. Bursting with 80s-styled anthems and a heart of absolute gold this show is surely destined for the big leagues. This musical is going to fly!

Charting the very real story of Larry Walters who in 1982, took to the skies above northern LA sat in a lawn chair tethered to 42 helium weather balloons. His previous aviation dreams dashed when his eyesight wasn’t up to scratch for the US airforce, instead serving in the catering corps during the Vietnam War. Forever supported by his girlfriend Carol and somewhat begrudgingly by her mother, his dreams became a reality though not entirely to plan. The show has to consistently remind us that the story is documented truth in the face of the utterly ludicrous and bizarre ploy that Larry and his ground crew set out to achieve yet somehow manages to find serious and profound beats amongst the incredulity and chaos. The piece universally asks how far we must go to chase down a lifelong dream and if that dream is worth the cost it takes from us.

The jewel in the crown of this show is undoubtedly Jack Godfrey’s magnificent score. Drawing upon the recognisable and exhilarating synths and riffs of the 80s the music grounds us in time but feels fresh and vibrant for the modern day. Godfrey effortlessly guides us through Larry’s hijinks, nailing the tone at every twist and turn. He uncovers every nugget of humour and every ounce of heart through reoccurring motifs, playful melodies and quick-witted lyrics, conveying every aspect of the tale with absolute ease. There is such variety to the music too, shifting between numbers reminiscent of Toni Basil’s ‘Mickey’ and Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ to heart-stopping ballads that already have the sense of soon-to-be classics. Evelyn Hoskins delivers one such balled at the emotional crux of the show entitled ‘Helium’ and it is thoroughly devastating and oh so mighty. Jack Godfrey is certainly a rising star and future heavy hitter in the industry and with his co-creation Babies opening at London’s Other Palace Theatre at the end of the month the trajectory is skywards. 

Taking centre stage as Larry is Charlie McCullagh, complete with signature aviators and 80s moustache to boot. McCullagh is laser-focused on Larry’s ambition, the desperation to fly evident as he communicates his vision to those around him. Having seen weather balloons at an army surplus store as a teenager, the idea came to him, lingering for twenty years, the dream only delayed or paused when others told him no. McCullagh brings delightful enthusiasm and comedic charm to Larry’s character, instantly likeable as the awkward amateur aviator but equally excels in treading through post-flight Larry’s life, the dream now fulfilled and the what comes next not part of the plan. His absent purpose and hefty financial debt imbuing friction into the relationship between him and girlfriend Carol. Arguably there is a shift in the focus after the completion of Larry’s flight, the spotlight falling upon Carol as she questions the sacrifices she has had to make for her head in the clouds partner. Evelyn Hoskins is an unquestionable marvel in this role, transforming from the wide-eyed believer, supporting her boyfriend’s dream to a fierce and proud defender of him, eternally tethering him to reality. Her vocal prowess is of course exceptional too, delivering Godfrey’s music perfectly, it allowing showcase her brilliant range, the emotional weight present behind every word. Gillian Hardie has an excellent turn as Carol’s Mom with her song ‘Somebody’s Story’ an obvious highlight. She breathes a smidge of sanity into the proceedings encouraging Carol to not forget about her own desires. 

The talented ensemble are a near-continuous presence throughout the show, dutifully providing outstanding harmonies and vocals as well as performing Alexzandra Sarmiento’s creative choreography with relentless vigour and commitment. They provide many of the supporting characters including a particularly strong offering from Simon Anthony when Larry’s exploits take him from Lawn to Letterman. Anthony plays the late-night host in a gripping number involving expert projections and video work that blends cleverly with the choreo to create an aggressive in-your-face line of questioning as Larry’s fights get his points across over the studio audience’s guffaws. The ensemble provide the effervescent energy that propels this musical onward, a downright vital piece of the complex blueprint. 

Milla Clarke’s design is ingenious. Placing the stage within the confines of one of Larry’s weather balloons to create an almost skatepark shape to the space. The sloped sides give the cast opportunities to add layers and height as they scramble and slide around before the upper portion lifts as Larry rises into the air, so he can look down on us from up high. The textureless shape allows for Andrzej Goulding to cleanly project his gorgeous video and animation design that expands the space and emphasises the swirling madness, often in the style of an 80s music video - delightful. In the second act Natalie Pryce’s costume and Bruno Poet’s lighting design work in tandem to strip away the colour as the grim truth of Carol and Larry’s debt sinks in. The previously rich designs make way for grey suits and harsh lighting in deep contrast to the saturated palette of everything that has come before. This creative team work in perfect tandem armed with a unified vision and it is exquisite. 

Godfrey and co have victoriously guided this wonderful show, sticking the landing, unlike Larry who (with no damage to himself) collided with overhead power lines during his descent. There is space for this show to continue to grow and inflate to hopefully fill larger spaces as it eyes a space in the West End. This is a madcap and charmingly self-aware piece of theatre that will enchant and inspire all those with dreams yet to be lived. Hilarious, heartfelt and heroic. 

Running until 19th May - Tickets

Photography - Pamela Raith

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