Theatre / Reviews
Review: High School Never Ends The Musical, Alma Tavern & Theatre – ‘A nostalgic, effervescent and jarringly wholesome musical experience’
With the runaway success of shows such as We Will Rock You and Bat Out of Hell, jukebox musicals have become a cultural phenomenon. Into that space comes the mercurial storytelling and heartfelt singing of High School Never Ends – The Musical, written by Owen B Lewis and based on the music of Bowling for Soup.
Returning to Bristol after their acclaimed stage adaptation of The Boy Who Made it Rain in the autumn of 2022, Lewis is once again working with his creative collaborator George Harold Millman.
Without a smattering of hyperbole, they are a ‘power couple’ within the local arts scene, having made their presence felt through multiple mediums including TV pilots, films, books and audiobooks alongside their stage productions.
is needed now More than ever
Lewis wrote High School Never Ends in 2018 while studying at the University of the West of England (UWE).
After an initial sell-out performance in Bristol, a different director put it on as a showcase performance in London, and its return home for a five night run at The Alma Tavern and Theatre indicates a promising upward curve of momentum.
The story is an attempt to capture the love, loss and heartbreak of high school romances in an era yet unsullied by social media and the Internet, underscored by plenty of foot-tapping funky beats.
Our central protagonists are erstwhile high school sweethearts Jaret and Emily, who went through an acrimonious break up that propelled them in separate directions.
Since their college days in late 1980s Texas, the naïvety of youth and its attendant dreams bumps up against the hard realities of day-to-day life.
Emily is tied to her IT desk job; Jaret is working at his father’s garage covered in grease and soot. Neither has found a relationship since they left high school, and both still reminisce about those hazy days where love seemed endless. “I know he was a dick,” Emily confesses, “but he was my dick!”
The pair are now in their mid-thirties, and rumour soon spreads of a 20 year high school reunion. Can they rekindle that old spark? Or is it too late to make amends?
In a polished production bursting with energy and drenched in nostalgia, the cast do not set a foot wrong. Each member plays an integral part in the progression of the story. We are treated to heartfelt singing, energetic dance routines, well-crafted monologues and orchestrated buffoonery.
Emily’s high school ‘circle of trust’ – namely Debbie and Lisa, are portrayed with empathy by Becca Sharp and Megan Wright respectively, while Jaret’s posse is made of the eclectic mix of Chris, Erik and Gary played to a tee by the wonderfully versatile Chris Harris-Beechey, Benedict Golde and Freddie Holt.
Harrison Waterhouse and Emma Giles in the titular characters of Jaret and Emily are a revelation. Their stage chemistry is unmistakable, and the duets they sing are full of tender moments as their vocal harmonies intertwine beautifully. Jacob Mellers shines as the vibrant Lance, while Tim Nixon and Cait Davies give nuanced performances as Jaret’s parents.
Throughout, there are many memorable moments, not least the boyband vibes of Ohio (Come Back to Texas), and the eponymous showstopper High School Never Ends. The emotion pervading the story feels at once serendipitous and nostalgic; you can sense the weight of the entire audience hoping and praying for the old sweethearts to get back together. Luckily, their prayers are not in vain.
And as befits a musical, it’s not devoid of a bit of razzle dazzle, too. The choreography devised by Emma Giles and Clare Brice is sensational, and the staging benefits from detailed and evocative design that neatly captures the American South. The beguiling drawl of the Southern accent – perfected by the cast – adds an extra layer of authenticity to the production.
Millman and Lewis have been joined by Ben Hill in creating an effective artistic vision for the project. But perhaps above all, it is Lewis’ writing that should be lauded for its wit and wisdom; the many wisecracks between songs never feel forced, but rather act as the fluid, binding mortar for a thoroughly entertaining musical.
The raucous standing ovation at the curtain call is testament to a finely crafted production which deserves to be continue its life well beyond Bristol.
High School Never Ends the Musical is at the Alma Tavern & Theatre on March 21-25 at 8pm. Tickets are available at www.tickettailor.com.
Main photo: Manuel Musiu
Read more: Review: The Boy Who Made It Rain, Alma Tavern & Theatre – ‘A powerful exploration of bullying, class identity, prejudice and teenage angst’
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