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.
Making a splash: Laura Poyner and Nicholas Brady with the cast of Urinetown (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)
Leave a comment | tags: Alan K Marshall, Birmingham, Brendan Stanley, Charlotte Upton, Crescent Theatre, Gary Spruce, Greg Kotis, Helen Parsons, James Booth, Keith Harris, Laura Poyner, Mark Hollmann, Mark Horne, musical, Nicholas Brady, Paul Forrest, review, Tiffany Cawthorne, Urinetown, Wanda Raven | posted in Theatre Review
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.
Pissed off: Richard Fleeshman and Jenna Russell
Leave a comment | tags: Adam Pearce, Greg Kotis, Jamie Lloyd, Jenna Russell, Jonathan Slinger, Karis Jack, Marc Elliott, Mark Hollmann, review, Richard Fleeshman, Rosanna Hyland, Simon Paisley Day, St James Theatre, theatre review, Urinetown | posted in Theatre Review