THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Urinetown – the Musical
St James Theatre, 12 Palace St, London SW1E 5JA
Booking to June 21, 2014
Music & lyrics by Mark Hollmann; book & lyrics by Greg Kotis
"Worldwide ecological devastation has a way of changing a man" says the villainous fat cat Caldwell B Cladwell (Simon Paisley Day) dolefully. Urinetown is set in a dystopian future when, following a prolonged drought, all public conveniences have been privatised. "You got to pay to pee" and sneaking off behind the bushes to relieve yourself is a capital offence. Our young hero Bobby Strong (Richard Fleeshman), the deputy lavatory attendant, has had enough and after the death of his father at the hands of the evil water corporation he leads a motley collection of underclass types to rebel against their oppressors. This fusing of anti-capitalist text with classic Hollywood musical would have Senator Joe McCarthy spinning in his grave.
Mark Hollmann's score delights in pastiching established musical genres. Hollywood musical, jazz, soul, gospel and Les Mis are thrown in for good measure. Complementing this is a book by Greg Kotis, which is a knowing, self referential, affair. Our narrator is a crooked cop, Officer Lockstock, (Jonathan Slinger), who is constantly breaking off to remind us of the rules of the genre. He banters with another fourth wall breaker, the irreverent street urchin Little Sally, who concludes that "This isn't a happy musical but the music is so happy". Karis Jack in her professional London debut here is a joy. So it's Brechtian but with a wink.
Jamie Lloyd's brilliance as a director is to the fore again here. He details and polishes every moment like a great mosaic and whole gleeful production has a pizazz and comic brio that is infectious. Jenna Russell, the West End's premier leading lady, is a delight as Chief Lavatory Attendant, Miss Pennywise. One minute, she recalls Cloris Leachman in old hag mode, the next she's vamping like a Film Noir dame, or wittily dwelling for too long on Richard Fleeshman's manly chest. He proves, by the way, that Ghost wasn't a fluke. He's got the looks, the voice, the moves, and manages to bring a boyish charm to a character, which could easily have been just a cardboard hero.
Key to the shows success is how it manages to fuse broad comedy with having a heart, not an easy feat. The undergraduate precocity of it all could easily have sunk it but it is redeemed by never taking its angst about environmental doom too seriously. On that score, one wonders whether they got the eco–cycle exactly right, because surely in a drought you'd pee less and so the clever capitalist would pay people for theirs and then exploit its recyclable value?
But, anyway, let's not talk economics when there is great theatre craft here from Anna Yee's parody choreography, to Kate Waters bone crunching fight direction and especially Soutra Gilmour's astonishing production design. Her subterranean set is an imposing Expressionist sewer. It is actually rather cramped here and one wonders whether it is actually intended for a bigger theatre. One certainly hopes so, as this deserves a life beyond this limited run. It is great to see the St James Theatre too gradually emerging as a theatrical force to be reckoned with in London theatre. Photo by Johan Persson.