Ultra-violence with a cracker of a smile on its face is one of my favourite things; add in singing and it becomes a large gorge-fest of brand spanking new fun. Is Urinetown that brutal? Well, I definitely wasn’t expecting what I saw. There weren’t any shrieks of horror from the audience, but it certainly does have its gob-smacking moments. The subject matter is dark, even more so because the dystopian world it portrays could very well become our reality in the not so distant future.
Can you imagine actually paying to perform a basic human right? Err – yes, most London main line stations (and others across the world) charge 30p to use the toilet. How about if you were required to pay whenever you needed to go and, if you were caught doing otherwise, sent to your death? That’s the premise of Urinetown, the phenomenally popular award-winning show, which ran for three years on Broadway, nightmarishly dreamed up by Mark Hollmann (music and lyrics) and Greg Kotis (book and lyrics).
The inhabitants of a future American city have come to terms with this chilling reality due to a drought that has left no alternative. It isn’t until hero Bobby Strong (Matthew Seadon-Young) questions the machine that dictates it, Urine Good Company, that events take a drastic turn and a revolution threatens to topple the powers that be. Any good musical isn’t quite complete without a jolly delightful love story and this show does not disappoint, as Strong becomes very attached to Hope (Rosanna Hyland), the daughter of UGC’s Chief of Everything, Caldwell B. Cladwell (Simon Paisley Day).
There are some dark moments in Urinetown – gloriously so, but still pretty black – however the most disturbing is quite how close these events are to reality. Perhaps not quite so extensively or literally, but being controlled by a pretty heavy, capitalist government, dictating what we can and can’t do? There’s a very strong contrast here as the tone of the show is utterly ridiculous and, really, just laughably bad – but in an entirely intentional manner. This corresponding with quite a lot of blood and, really, a significantly unfunny story, surprisingly works.
The characters are mostly hilarious: Jenna Russell’s Penelope Pennywise (Mrs Lovett’s sister from another mother) mans the amenities that dominate the stage with a huge dash of trollop and plenty of smudged lipstick with dry aplomb. Seadon-Young and Hyland’s sweet ‘never-quite-there’ couple have great chemistry and Hyland especially carries the straight-faced look very well. Paisley Day makes for a cracking villain and even worse father, but I found myself far less interested in the scenes involving him and his corporation than those creating the revolution. Soutra Gilmour’s two-storey set design perhaps contributes to this, as UGC’s plotting and planning feel separate and, from a good seat in the stalls, the top of the set is often out of eye-line.
The singing is not quite as strong as I would have expected and less legit, beltier power would have blown my socks off. The show just feels too aware of its musical ownership and not simply because the narrator (yes, narrator), played excellently by Jonathan Slinger, draws attention to the fact – I understand the intent here but the celebratory appreciation of itself just feels off. A quite fabulous and entirely tasteless performance of ‘Run, Freedom, Run’ by Seadon Young and the ensemble is extremely enjoyable, but the long applause that follows goes beyond funny and feels too O.T.T. and uncomfortable.
This is ultimately a very fun show and doesn’t take itself at all seriously. The tone is gloriously dry and provides a handful of gleeful shocks, but the dominance of what I find frightfully ‘stagey’ unfortunately makes it less than perfect.
Urinetown is playing at the Apollo Theatre until January 2015. For more information and tickets, see the Urinetown website.
Photo by Johan Persson