It’s been a long time coming to the London stage following its original Off-Broadway run in 1999, but Urinetown, currently playing at the St James Theatre, has undoubtedly been well worth the wait. It would be easy to be put off by the unusual title, but this is one show not to be missed: Urinetown has everything from a riveting storyline with plenty of twists and turns, to incisive satirical songs, and a large helping of laugh-out-loud moments to boot.
Set in a dystopian future plagued by water shortages and characterised by social inequality, Urinetown explores a world where, in the words of one of many stellar numbers, ‘It’s a Privilege to Pee’. Public bathrooms are managed by Caldwell B. Cladwell (the brilliant, Simon Paisley Day) who heads the corporation, Urine Good Company, which charges citizens every time they need to spend a penny, so to speak. When Assistant Urinal Custodian, Bobby Strong (Richard Fleeshman) decides to listen to his heart and challenge the system, chaos is unleashed as Caldwell struggles to hold onto power through brute force and violence. This compelling setup allows the show to satirise everything from capitalism, to tyranny, love and even musicals themselves – and as such, Urinetown is not only incredibly entertaining but it is pertinent too.
There are almost too many stand-out moments in the play to name them all and risk ruining the fun, but one of the best parts of Urinetown is how it successfully spans, and at times mocks, a number of genres. ‘Follow Your Heart’ offers the perfect antidote to the traditional sickly-sweet love songs which often feature in West End musicals, and the gospel-choir style rendition of ‘Run, Freedom, Run’, performed with pitch-perfect comic timing, had the audience cheering with delight. On top of which, what makes Urinetown even better is its own self-consciousness and refusal to meet typical audience expectations of musicals. Indeed, though narrator Officer Lockstock (Jonathan Slinger) informs the audience well ahead of time that there will be no happy ending, Urinetown still manages to surprise with its highly ironic twist, making it on the whole, an incredibly satisfying musical – as opposed to its more happy-go-lucky, crowd-pleasing West End rivals.
With sharp and witty dialogue by Greg Kotis, superb music and lyrics by Mark Hollman, and experienced director, Jamie Lloyd at the helm, Urinetown is in thoroughly capable hands and it shows. Soutra Gilmour’s design is immediately striking upon entering the theatre: eerie, dingy and beautiful all at once, complimented by Adam Silverman’s lighting which gives the show a strong visual impact. On top of this, the talented and boisterous ensemble, many of whom slide seamlessly into a number of roles, really bring this strange world to life, so that it is well fleshed-out and believable. Put simply, not for a long time have I enjoyed a night at the theatre as much as I enjoyed Urinetown: it’s definitely a musical worth spending your pennies on.
Urinetown is playing at St James Theatre until 3 May. For more information and tickets, see the St James Theatre website.