MAKING A SPLASH: URINE SHOWBIZ NOW!
Are they taking the piss? This extraordinary 2001 American musical by Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis ran three years on Broadway after a fringe debut, landing three Tonys despite the studiedly unpromising title, downbeat ending and a plot which, baldly described, sounds as jejune as a rag-week demo.
But by God, it works! It took a while to convince me, but halfway through the first half of Jamie Lloyd’s storming, crowding, rackety production I forgave a certain incomprehensibity in the chorus lyrics (it was the last preview, it’ll settle) and rolled along with the oddball smash hit of the season. Even stood up for the gore-spattere curtain-call: filthily clad revolutionaries, bad cops, revolutionaries and a corrupt politician in a bloodstained bra.
Soutra Gilmour’s atmospheric set has two levels, around a revolving urinal block and giant sewerpipes: Blade Runnerish with retro-future detail. It represents a city so blighted by drought that private lavatories are banned: the suffering populace queues to pay at squalid public ones, controlled by brutal cops under a giant corporation run by Cladwell (Simon Paisley Day in a villainous moustache). The penalty for peeinng in the street is exile to “Urinetown” . Which, it becomes clear, is a euphemism for execution. “Urinetown’s a tool / To enforce my iron rule…” sings Cladwell happily. He is paying off a greedy senator – topical utility-jokes about how the money is supposed to solve the eco-problem, but is really spent on fun in Rio . The satire, which is heavy, targets the corporate and tyrannical desire to exploit and police basic human needs – food and love, so why not bladder and bowels? Bog attendant Bobby (Richard Fleeshman) starts a revolution by letting the poor in (“Free the Pee-ple”) but falls in love with Cladwell’s naive daughter Hope (Rosanna Hyland). They flee to the sewers , she is made hostage and tied up but not too tightly to prevent her reprising a mock-schlock “Follow your heart” number. O she’s untied she rocks a great gospel-blues “I see a River”. Jenna Russell is a stunner as Penelope Pennywise, a ginger virago undergoing a Nancy-style remorse
Lloyd, who lately froze our blood with his McAvoy Macbeth, makes much of the brutalities, riot-shields banged to Hollmann’s rorty score; enough to make us uneasy at times if it wasn’t distanced by a knowing meta-theatre device in which the chief policeman , an unusually sinister-looking Jonathan Slinger, discusses and mocks the progress of the show with Li’l Sal (a terrific Karis Jak). There are great numbers like Cladwell’s “Don’t be the bunny, don’t be the stew!” with a chorus of rabbit-headed victims on the revolve and a barmy glove-puppet, and we cheered as the revolutionaries were led in gospel chorus conducted by a fiercely ludicrous Bobby.
That sums up the strength and weakness of the piece: a laddish desire to make its points while sliding – as lads will – embarrassedly away from emotion: everything’s a parody. It made me nostalgic for the way another transgressive musical, Jerry Springer the Opera, had the courage to offer moments of poignancy. But never mind: this one is spot-on for the Hunger-Games-And-Zombie generation: its studied cynicism very student-friendly. But my inner student joined in, seduced by its exuberant absurdity. And aficionados of musical parody may spot hommages to Les Mis, Chicago, Guys and Dolls, Sondheim and a hint of Phantom in the sewers.
And never have I seen such a lemming rush for the lavatories in the interval…
box office 0844 264 2140 to 3 May