Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 27th May, 2018
It’s no secret that Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’s Urinetown is my favourite musical of all time. Set in a near future, where water is so scarce even going to the toilet is regulated and controlled – and costly, with the laws enforced by a police force very much in the pay of the corporation. The poor, of course, get the worst of it, scrabbling for coins and queuing for hours for the ‘privilege to pee’. Transgressors are swiftly despatched to Urinetown, from whose bourn no traveller returns. Whenever there’s a production in the offing, I meet the news with a mixture of excitement and dread – excitement to get the chance to see it again, and dread in case the producing company make a hash of it. In the case of the Crescent Theatre, I am able to cast aside the dread entirely as soon as it begins.
Brendan Stanley is our narrator, the show’s heavy, Officer Lockstock. His exchanges with Little Sally (Charlotte Upton) provide most of the show’s Brechtian, fourth-wall-breaking moments, for this is a musical about musicals as much as it is a musical about Urinetown. Kotis’s witty book for the show constantly reminds us, in case we’re in any danger of forgetting, that we’re watching artifice at work. This provides a lot of laughs but the show also has something important to say – but I’ll come to that.
Stanley and Upton are excellent and are soon joined by the chorus of downtrodden, bladder-distressed townsfolk, drab in their boiler suits and headscarves. Accompanied by a tight band, under the musical direction of Gary Spruce, the chorus numbers are sung beautifully – I’ve never heard them better. And I start to get chills…
Leading the cast and leading the rebellion is Nicholas Brady as Bobby Strong. Brady sings powerfully and expressively in a West End worthy performance; as his love interest and daughter of the bad guy, Hope Cladwell, Laura Poyner is sheer perfection, with a robust soprano voice and flawless comic timing in her Judy Garland-like characterisation. Hope and Bobby’s duet gives me shivers. Helen Parsons is outstanding as Penelope Pennywise, wide-eyed manager of the local toilets, and Mark Horne is suitably, casually callous as the villainous capitalist (is there another kind?) Caldwell B Cladwell. There is strong support from absolutely everyone else, including Paul Forrest’s Officer Barrel and Wanda Raven as Bobby’s mother.
Director Alan K Marshall does brilliantly with his large company within the close confines of the Ron Barber Studio, cramming the show with quick-fire ideas, for example a makeshift pieta, complete with halo, and having the chorus sport nightmarish sacks on their heads to signify their move to the mythical Urinetown. Tiffany Cawthorne’s choreography accentuates the quirkiness of Hollmann’s musically rich and diverse score, and it’s all played out on Keith Harris’s dark and dingy, graffiti-strewn set, subtly (or perhaps not so subtly!) splashed with yellow spots! James Booth’s lighting design is a thing of beauty in itself. The production values of this show are of the highest order.
And what does the show have to say to us, apart from giving us fantastic entertainment? Our way of life is unsustainable – we’ve heard this before and we know it but it’s worth hearing again. The show also points out the folly and madness of handing over vital public services to money-grabbing corporations (you know, like what the Tories are doing with our NHS). It all rings ever-so-relevant. How many times do the rail and power companies hike up their prices, with the promised improvements in services never materialising? Every bloody time, that’s how many.
An outstanding piece of theatre – the Crescent has set the bar exceedingly high for whatever musical they tackle next time.