Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Urinetown

St James Theatre, London

****

Music & lyrics by Mark Hollmann
Book & lyrics by Greg Kotis
Directed by Jamie Lloyd


Richard Fleeshman confronts Jenna Russell

More than a decade after it's acclaimed Broadway debut, Urinetown splashes down on this side of the Atlantic, premiering at London's bijou St James Theatre. Brash and brassy, the show is set in an America of the future. Water is scarce, sewerage is rationed and evil big business controls the municipal toilets, where "spending a penny" costs just that and sometimes considerably more. Packing a seriously portentous message (wise minds have long suggested that future wars will be fought over water rather than oil), the show is a satirical meta-musical, that not only takes the piss out of peeing, but also out of its own genre too.

The style throughout is of a 1960’s graphic novel. The bad guys are really bad, the cops are in the pay of the suits and the poor are down-trodden. The violence is beautifully choreographed and when the (copious) stage-blood flows it is often as a thick black goo as well as the classic scarlet, mimicking the comic-books' monochrome. Thomas Malthus is the other literary reference that streams through the show. Jonathan Slinger (who only recently was the RSC’s Hamlet at Stratford) opens proceedings as sardonic cop Officer Lockstock, sat on stage in a mise en scene, quietly reading from the 18th century philosopher as the audience take their seats. Malthus’ apocalyptic predictions drive the tale, prophesying that ultimately the world’s resources will not be able to sustain its geometrically expanding human population. 

Jamie Lloyd again lays down his marker as a creator of visionary theatre. Working with a first class company his caricatured characters are as hilarious as they are disturbing. Musical theatre's grand dame in waiting, Jenna Russell, is Penelope Pennywise the grotesquely rubber-aproned supervisor of Public Amenity 9. Her role down amongst the city's low lifes is to guard the facility, ensuring that only those who pay, can pee. With her ghostly, ghastly, white-slapped face Russell is sublime and her big number, It’s A Privilege To Pee, is a masterclass in performance.

Also starring is Richard Fleeshman as Bobby Strong, the hero who dares to challenge the system. Fleeshman does not disappoint and if his big number Look At The Sky is a touch too heavy on the ironic melodrama, he more than makes up for it in delivery. As corporate baddie, Caldwell B. Cladwell, Simon Paisley Day is everything a villain should be. With a moustache inspired by Moriarty and the sharpest satirical dialog, Day relishes the role and is a joy to watch throughout. At times the show’s structure creaks more than it leaks. Lockstock's role is also that of occasional narrator, a mechanism that too often seems to be an easy way out for the writers, checking up that the audience “geddit” just in case the show has nauseated rather than amused.

The strengths of this production however lie within the carefully crafted values that producer Julian Stoneman has evidently insisted (and spent a fortune) upon. The acting company is top drawer throughout with even supporting roles being outstanding. Karis Jack’s Little Sally is a cracker and Adam Pearce’s thuggishly rotund Officer Barrel (Lockstock’s sidekick) is another modest glimpse of excellence. After the interval the glorious ensemble number Run, Freedom, Run displays every sign of evolving into the show-stopper that the cast clearly hope it to be. Soutra Gilmour's ingeniously grim designs of sewer and slum with multi-level multiple revolves suit the steeply raked theatre perfectly, alongside Ann Yee’s choreography and Kate Water’s multiple fight designs that are delivered with pinpoint drill and perfectly timed conviction.

Urinetown is musical theatre of the highest standard. Clearly staged with a deserved transfer in mind it is the work of a cast and creative team at the top of their game and demands to be seen. You're in for a treat!


Runs until 3rd May 2014

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