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42 Balloons

Jack Godfrey

Andy & Wendy Barnes for Global Musicals, Kevin McCollum, in association with The Lowry, Debbie Hicks, Sam Levy, S&Co and Kenny Wax

The Lowry, Salford

April 18-May 19, 2024; 2hrs 15mins

Up and away: we have lift off in 42 Balloons
Up and away: we have lift off in 42 Balloons

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What makes a man try to fly in a lawn chair? What makes a woman buy 42 weather balloons?

These burning questions are answered in full 1980s Technicolor glory in the Lowry's new musical, 42 Balloons. And if you really want to know, you won't be disappointed with the journey.

The opening is stunning, and almost conjures an element of the avant garde in terms of how we're asked to receive the show.

We begin with an expanding square, through which we view the action, which then opens as we're treated to full lead guitar/synth 80s-style rock, and video projections foretelling the real-life tale of Larry Walters, the man who ascended to the sky in a deck chair tethered to 42 helium balloons (or maybe 43 - no-one's really sure).

As director Ellie Coote said, "It's not pastiche, but it's homage and it's playful and it feels really fresh."

There's a lot of affection for Larry (the wonderfully geeky Charlie McCullagh) evident in the writing, as he is painfully rejected by the airforce for short-sightedness, but goes on to achieve his crazy ambition with the unwavering backing of girlfriend Carol (the stunningly normal Evelyn Hoskins), who herself has humbler ambitions but dedicates herself to the fulfilment of his dream. 

There are a few stories going on here, and it gets more profound the deeper you look. Larry is unusual, persistent, endearingly obsessive – in a strange sort of way, the embodiment of the American dream with perhaps a touch of neurodivergence; unable to foresee the cruelty of the media, or to understand the derision he comes to face.

The plot itself is at once domestic and oddly grandiose. With 80s power chords, a wildly energetic chorus of commentators as backing singers, and a cast that slips in and out of characters, commenting on their own emotions with postmodern Brechtian irony, the storytelling enhances the grandiosity of Larry's idea and makes this an epic story, demanding our sympathy for the man and his absolutely bonkers idea. We feel Larry, as Carol feels Larry, as Larry feels Larry, as the creator Jack Godfrey feels Larry. We are on board with a dreamer in a 1980s world that wanted and needed dreamers.

But perhaps the main story is Carol's. What makes a woman buy 42 weather balloons, and the rest. What makes a woman put her own dreams on hold for someone else? As her comedic but eminently sensible mother (Gillian Hardy) tells her, don't lose yourself in somebody's story. She does, but perhaps part of the dream is that, for better or for worse, we often see Larry through Carol's eyes.

There are wonderful things about this production. The singing and dancing throughout is incredible. The characters are both three-dimensional and comedic. Milla Clarke's set is ingenious, with an intense rake that requires footholds for the actors to perch (while singing, a feat in itself), and a spherical feel. For the second half of the show, the top of the "balloon" stage lifts to reveal the fantastic band, and Larry joins them as an 80s rock star, in an inspired metaphor for the fulfilment of a dream and the feeling of flight. Who are the ensemble members? An 80s MTV backing group, or a Greek chorus? Both, as they tell us in the prologue: "And this actually happened, you can look it up after the show". Of course we all did.

42 Balloons is a postmodern mega-musical that tells us a story about the power and the danger of dreams, the cruelty and joy of the world, and the ultimate truth: that even if everyone laughs at you at the time, 40 years later maybe thousands will flock to an incredible musical to hear your story told in jumpsuits, powerchords and pop ballads.

More info and tickets here


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