St James Theatre, London, Thursday 6th March, 2014
At long last, Urinetown comes to the UK and, let me tell you, it is well worth the wait. I could write the shortest review ever and just say: PERFECTION. Or I could go on and on and write a book about how great this show truly is. I’ll try to land somewhere between the two.
It is set in a dystopian future where a water shortage means bodily functions are strictly regulated. Everyone has to pay to use public toilets – going elsewhere is strictly prohibited. Offenders are caught and exiled to the mysterious Urinetown of the title. Of course, there’s a greedy corporation manipulating and exploiting the situation with politicians and law enforcers in its pay. Not unlike coalition Britain, ha ha – but the satire of the show is sharper than mine.
When he meets and falls for the corporation boss’s daughter, Bobby Strong embarks on a revolutionary path to restore dignity and socialism to the world. But the show is about more than a clash of political ideas. It’s also about musicals, while being a demonstration in how to write and perform a musical. There’s a lot of frame-breaking fun going on, poking fun at its own form. Director Jamie Lloyd capitalises on every such moment but the production never becomes too ‘knowing’ or ‘nudge-wink’. It’s all carried off with camp charm.
Officer Lockstock is our narrator. Together with Little Sally, who speaks for the audience, he guides us through the show, like a man trapped in the fourth wall. RSC stalwart Jonathan Slinger is the bully-boy cop and I don’t think he’s ever been better. Karis Jack’s Little Sally draws our attention to the absurdity and distastefulness of the subject matter, while conveying the character’s blinking innocence.
As Bobby Strong, Richard Fleeshman is certainly swoonworthy, giving us the hero’s blind determination and idealism. He has a great voice too. Rosanna Hyland is love interest Hope, fresh-faced and sweet-voiced, she plays the humour of the part to perfection. Her father, the evil Caldwell B Cladwell is played with relish by Simon Paisley Day. Marc Elliott is delightfully twitchy and smarmy as Mr McQueen and Adam Pearce is splendid as Lockstock’s partner-in-crime-fighting, Officer Barrel. Although if Lockstock put his baton to my head to make me pick a favourite, I’d have to opt for Jenna Russell’s hilarious and cartoonish Penelope Pennywise.
It’s an outstanding cast. An ensemble of energetic minor characters mean there is always plenty going on; some hysterical bits of business make the show consistently funny. There is also some darkness along the way. Transgressors are beaten up and bloodied. We are reminded that there is a serious message to all of this, and it’s not just that capitalism is wrong and that socialism won’t work. The show reminds us that our way of life is unsustainable. Without proper management of the world’s resources, we won’t have a world on which to debate ideals, or indeed a pot to piss in.
On the surface it all seems like silliness but Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann’s show is a remarkable piece of work. You can see why it won tons of awards on and off Broadway. The production values of this current incarnation should see some awards winging their way to the St James Theatre or there’s no justice. Soutra Gilmour’s production design gives us a dank and grimy world of brick walls and tiles, like Victorian toilets and sewers. Ann Yee’s choreography is quirky and funny, as the score sends up a range of musical styles. The attention to detail is, like much of the production, breathtaking.
Urinetown is a truly refreshing addition to London’s musical theatre. Like a long, cool glass of water, it makes you want to go again.