fri 14/06/2024

Urinetown, Apollo Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Urinetown, Apollo Theatre

Urinetown, Apollo Theatre

Broadway sleeper hit takes on a darker tone

`The RSC was never like this!': classical actor Jonathan Slinger crosses over to musicals as Officer Lockstock Johan Persson

It's tempting with this show less to write a review per se than to simply pile on the puns, but that would be to piss on - sorry, I meant do a disservice to - both the musical that is Urinetown and to the exceptionally deft UK premiere that the Broadway sleeper hit from a dozen or more years ago is currently receiving at the hands of the director Jamie Lloyd.

In New York, Tony-winners Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis's wilfully self-conscious pastiche was by turns winning and wearing, in accordance with a piece that has barely begun before it starts to self-deconstruct. Lloyd, by contrast, plays down the jokiness and highlights the Brechtian bite, throwing in enough stage blood and the like (a barber chair at one point included) to suggest that the venture may represent this director's audition piece for Sweeney Todd

Until that day arrives, as well it might given Lloyd's success in 2010 with Stephen Sondheim's Passion, this Urinetown will do very nicely, even if the work itself is sure to divide British commentators in much the way that a comparably freewheeling Broadway success in The Book of Mormon did in its transatlantic crossing last year  (not that a mixed press here has hurt Mormon commercially one iota.) 

Jenna Russell as Penelope PennywiseEarly indicators are that some locals find the title too squirm-inducing for comfort (odd, given that there's scarcely a more squeamish theatrical capital anywhere than Broadway) at the same time as the production is appealing to a younger crowd that wouldn't be caught dead at, say, From Here to Eternity. Purely on the basis of star wattage, I would commend a visit to the comparatively tiny St James: not every day is so talented, if eclectic, a name cast assembled at so intimate an address, all the way from Olivier Award-winners (a feral Jenna Russell, pictured right, nominated again this year for Merrily We Roll Along) to classical theatre mainstays (Jonathan Slinger) and on to clarion-voiced newcomers (Karis Jack and Rosanna Hyland, the vocal standouts in an ensemble that grants singing pride of place to the women). 

The gathering darkness of Lloyd's approach is evident from the start as the audience grope their way to their seats, Soutra Gilmour's two-tiered, artfully grungy landscape - a Dickensian underworld kicked into the Gotham City of the 21st century and beyond - on view before us. And scarcely has Slinger's leather-jacketed Officer Lockstock launched proceedings before the twilit chiaroscuro of Adam Silverman's lighting serves to bathe goings-on in a shimmeringly macabre hue. Urinetown the musical may posit a place where you get nothing (not even the right to urinate) for free, but Lloyd and his gifted collaborators at every turn hint at toilet privileges as merely the thin end of the totalitarian wedge amid an environment where even insurrection itself exists to be toppled. You want a happy ending? Don't look to this musical any more than you would to the nightly news.

And given the ever-worsening reports from the frontline of those hoped-for democracies that look as if they are being turned to dust, it makes sense that this British Urinetown should pack a more audacious punch than its Broadway predecessor, which often seemed interested in showbiz-heavy sketch comedy at the expense of the issues that course through the show, climate change and capitalism run amok preeminent among them. Sure, Slinger's thickly "Noo Yawk"-accented Lockstock still breaks the fourth wall, joining forces with Jack's terrifically endearing Little Sally to ponder, among other matters, the absurdity of his own show's title.

But one equally gets the impression that this is one law enforcement official who - away from the footlights - rather likes a thuggish pursuit or two, and if only Slinger's vocal range were somewhat more flexible, it would be fascinating to see this same actor have a go at the Emcee in Cabaret. As the show's self-appointed narrator, Lockstock builds the suspense about what Urinetown actually refers to (hint: think metaphorically) and then stands back to let the strapping Richard Fleeshman take centre-stage as the aptly named Bobby Strong. He's the resident visionary amid a cowed community that shuffles abjectly about under the shackles of lavatorial misrule as embodied by Simon Paisley Day in lowering form as the money-minded Caldwell B Cladwell. Anyone seeing this and the Almeida's 1984 back to back can compare dystopian visions.

How much genuine political pointedness can be applied to a musical whose tongue keeps wandering back into its cheek? That dilemma is doubtless inbuilt in the material, notwithstanding the extent to which Lloyd runs towards the American creators' grander ambitions in much the same way as Bobby leads the gospel roof-raiser, "Run, Freedom, Run", the most immediately infectious song amid a surpassingly smart score that gives musicals veteran Russell her own, chin-upturned triumph near the outset: a kicky Kurt Weill knock-off establishing the loo-keeper's tight control over her citizenry's use of the public toilets. And with Ann Yee's choreography bursting the stage confines, the prevailing energy allays any immediate concerns as to where, in fact, Urinetown feels most at home - whether it's as yet another Broadway paean to itself or, as here, a more socially orientated project that, for all its sense of fun, moves from roisterous hi-jinks to rivers of blood.

  • Urinetown is at the Apollo Theatre
  • This review was originally published when the production opened at St James Theatre earlier in 2014. There have since been some cast changes


The director Jamie Lloyd and his gifted collaborators at every turn hint at toilet privileges as merely the thin end of the totalitarian wedge


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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