Tuesday, 3 October 2017

The Toxic Avenger - Review

Arts Theatre, London


Book and Lyrics by Joe DiPietro
Music and Lyrics by David Bryan - Click to read my interview with David Bryan
Directed by Benji Sperring

Emma Salvo and Mark Anderson

The recent spate of far from traditional, original musicals - from Book of Mormon to Urinetown - is the best thing to happen to the genre in years. While Carousel will always remain a joy and Singin’ In The Rain a classic, it is fun-fests like The Toxic Avenger, which tells the tale of geek turned environmentally-challenged superhero with tongue firmly in cheek and energy levels set to maximum, that will bring in the new audiences that West End theatre needs.

With a cast of five and live band of even fewer, it’s a wonder in itself that this Southwark Playhouse transfer manages to fill the bigger Arts Theatre stage with as much energy and sheer delight as this ensemble does. It’s no small tale they have to tell, as small town nerd Melvin takes on the corrupt establishment of New Jersey (Who Will Save New Jersey) who are taking bribes from the Manhattan elite so they can continue to dump their waste across the Hudson River. A run in with the town thugs (Get the Geek) lands Melvin in some hot water - well, toxic waste - transforming him into the well meaning if murderous titular character. This fortunately takes his relationship with blind love interest, Sarah, to the next level, despite the smell, (My Big French Boyfriend) but unfortunately prompts the Mayor to seek his particular kryptonite (Evil is Hot). It’s seriously fun, but that’s where the seriousness ends.

Before we get onto the main characters there is the sheer delight that is the dazzling duo of Ché Francis and Oscar Conlon-Morrey, who bring to life the entire supporting cast from pitchfork armed farmer to ringleted folk singer with a fantastically flamboyant flair. Every persona the pair perform is a cartoon through and through, especially Conlon-Morrey’s bouncing and comically vigilant cop, who is the epitome of the grown up Baby Brent from the film Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs, and Francis’ nail-filing diva complete with killer legs, heels and pout.

Toxie himself is played by Mark Anderson who somehow manages to maintain the sickly sweetness from Melvin’s pre-toxic geeky days through to the savage and, ahem, more well endowed days of his Toxic Avenger incarnation. His love interest Sarah’s unfortunate blindness brings about the biggest belly laughs as the fourth wall is repeatedly broken to address the ridiculousness of what is happening, from lost canes to nearly walking off the stage. The bouncy and hilarious Emma Salvo is a walking comedy-timing masterclass. The frustration she portrays as Toxie repeatedly foils her attempts to touch her face has the audience absolutely roaring.

This self aware show is full of big voices, dances and farcical falls, with fun at the forefront. The stage is simple, radioactive green and practical, allowing even the blind to make scene changes and the band to join in on the action from time to time. The score is upbeat throughout save for the surprisingly tear-inducing You Tore My Heart Out, where the lyrical genius of Joe DiPietro meets the power ballad talent of David Bryan, best known for his keyboard playing for Bon Jovi.

The Toxic Avenger is unapologetically silly, but it is still a shame when undoubtedly clever lyrics are lost in the enthusiasm and bumbling prop moments take away from the purposeful ones. That’s not to say that this show needs to be flawless to be enjoyed. The script gives a very talented group of performers enough to play with and you can’t help but appreciate every minute, especially when the incredible Natalie Hope’s vengeful Mayor meets Natalie Hope’s sassy Ma and glorious chaos ensues. The silliness is as intoxicating for the cast as it is for the audience.

Runs to 3rd December
Reviewed by Heather Deacon
Photo credit: Irina Chira

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