views from the gods

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Urinetown
St. James Theatre
15th March 2014

★★★★☆

Urinetown publicity image

Photography © Johan Persson

Urinetown sounds, on paper, like your generic dystopian play: unspecified future society plagued by drought, corporate oppression, police state, popular revolt, blah, blah, blah... it already sounds more than a touch Les Mis. But this darkly satirical show quickly veers away from that kind of idealistic holiness, undertaking the proceedings with a crooked eyebrow and poking fun at itself from start to finish. The opening welcomes us to "Urinetown - the musical, not the place", provoking laughs from the outset and establishing the narrator/Officer Lockstock (played deftly by RSC stalwart Jonathan Slinger) as the fourth-wall-breaking commentator of the show.

Written at the turn of the Millennium (and transferring to Broadway just after 9/11) the original production took home three Tonys and ran for three years - this version, directed by the seemingly unstoppable Jamie Lloyd, sits a little too large in the tiny St James theatre and feels like it wants to be on the West End proper. This does not necessarily work against the show, rather echoing the claustrophobic nature of the world onstage. The two-tier design incorporates rotating elements on both levels for quick scene changes and the choreography makes use of these to maximum effect. The lighting complements the tiny space well, alternating from a claustrophobic atmosphere replete with smog to a utopic, sunny space and back again.

The casting is entirely sublime - brilliant Karis Jack as Annie-like orphan Little Sally, gifted with some of the most biting lines such as: "How about bad subject matter... Or a bad title? That could kill a show pretty good." Richard Fleeshman delivers as the naive revolutionary Bobby Strong - props to costume supervisor Chris Cahill for the Shia LaBoeuf-esque hat and jacket combination. He's set against Simon Paisley Day's deeply sinister Caldwell B. Cladwell (clearly relishing his part), with his introductory number "Mister Cladwell" offering a delicious send-up of the Hello, Dolly! style musical celebration.

This continues to all quarters. Cladwell's daughter, Hope, is played with wit and verve by Rosanna Hyland, picked out visually with the most colourful costume in the entire company. Her doe-eyed ingenue is offset with just the right amount of intelligence, loading her interpretation with vigour and just a brief flash of the steeliness in the second act. In a cast of superlative talent, however, the standout is Jenna Russell, newly Olivier-nominated for her brilliant run as Mary in Merrily We Roll Along. Her accent here is a re-run of that ground, with her performance cranked up to eleven; brilliant physical humour mixed with blistering pathos, particularly in the second act, and a voice of gold.

Urinetown publicity image

Photography © Johan Persson

The first act pastiches a litany of hit musicals, from Into the Woods (Look At The Sky) to Les Mis and everything inbetween. This is a musical of contradictions, of inverted parallels. Soutra Gilmour's grimy, forbidding brick set provides visual nods to this, with the two-tier stage providing separate spaces for the two factions of society, the brickwork below mirroring the space above which serves as Cladwell's office. Ann Yee's playful choreography toys with this separation in a number of ways, especially at the end of act one where the poor workers literally swap places with the ruling class; delightfully, Act One Finale also contains several nods to Les Mis in both music and movement. Another standout number comes in act two with Snuff the Girl, a direct riff on West Side Story complete with finger-clicking. The nods to other musicals come thick and fast but are worn, by and large, more subtly than in Book of Mormon; such as the Sweeney Todd-esque bloodied bodies, and the constant references to Rio, seemingly a swipe at The Producers.

Tonally, the show does seem to veer between cynical social commentary and shallow tongue-in-cheek mugging. Yes, the label names are fairly on-the-nose, especially Cladwell's daughter, Hope, and the two officers Lockstock and Barrel, but the piece mostly manages to get away with it. The pacing is a little uneven, with the ending somewhat rushed in terms of its depiction of the passage of time. There is almost enough material in the last 20 minutes to create a sequel, but the darkness of the denouement is so delicious it almost makes up for this.

The sound effects and music are delightful but at times the lyrics are lost below both for those beyond the front few rows; slightly problematic in a show where exposition is delivered in a rapid-fire manner - but this is the only real weakness of this production. The contradictory nature of the piece means that it never fully commits to either of its "messages" - anti-capitalism or environmentalism; but in a way that's beside the point - it wants the audience to participate, to laugh and to just go along with the fun.

Urinetown publicity image

Photography © Johan Persson

The parade of mutant bunnies in Don't Be The Bunny, Cladwell's villain song, offers the most off-the-wall element but it serves the action well and underlines Cladwell's viciousness. The merchandise picks out this number, but the more hummable Run Freedom Run would perhaps be a better choice, a parody of gospel music which the cast clearly enjoys as much as the audience.

Like later-created American imports Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon it's a show full of big laughs and glibness; unlike those shows it has a darkly bitter undercurrent, switching from belly laughs to shocked silence at the drop of a hat (or, erm, bunny...). These contradictions evoke more than a passing resemblance to a certain number from Cabaret - the bleakness of the finale serving to align it more closely with Kander and Ebb than Parker and Stone. Idealism cannot win here, however much you wish it could - as the audience is forewarned, don't be the bunny.

Urinetown opened on 22nd February and runs until 3rd May 2014 at the St. James Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Victoria (Victoria, Circle, District)



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