“You think you’ll come in here and go for free?”
The sight of a grim-faced guard demanding 20p or so at the doors to public toilets may be nothing new to visitors to train stations and museums but what if they were the only conveniences at all that you could use. That is the scenario in Urinetown, a Broadway cult hit which has splashed its way over to the St James Theatre, which envisages a dystopian future where the water table is so low that private toilets have been banned and public toilets have been privatised, meaning the only way to go is to pay for the privilege.
When Assistant Toilet Custodian Bobby Strong from the least salubrious toilet in town decides to make a stand against this corporate greed led by Caldwell B Cladwell’s Urine Good Company (ba-dum-tish), he leads a rebellion which kidnaps Caldwell’s daughter and demands the right to “pee for free”, unprepared for the violent crackdown that follows. Elements of Malthusian philosophy about the sustainability of the human race are seeded throughout and much of the story is as dark as the sewers in which much of it takes place.
So of course Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis have fashioned a musical out of it. And not only that, loaded it with a highly self-referential sense of parody. So Hollman’s score is full of pastiches which borrow liberally from many traditions of music and musical theatre – the flag-waving solidarity of Les Mis, the happy-clappy community feel of gospel, the sharper edges of Kurt Weill and Kander & Ebb rubbing up against the warm comforts of the likes of Loesser, Lerner and Loewe. It is a wryly observed collection which sparkles with lyrical invention and an often perverse sense of humour.
This self-reflexive tendency also creeps into Kotis’ book as the story is narrated by a grimy little tyke (“when a young girl has as many lines as I do, there’ still hope for dreams”) and a garrulous cop (“dreams only come true in happy musicals”) who have fun mocking conventions and subverting expectations. This is cleverly done but detracts a little from the theatrical power of the show, a concerted attempt to appeal to those who might profess not to like musicals when in fact, the atypical take on the genre is already most accomplished in Jamie Lloyd’s production.
Karis Jack and Jonathan Slinger epitomise bright hope and well-worn despair as the commentators; Richard Fleeshman and Rosanna Hyland’s young lovers marry a self-aware detachment with a shared romantic conviction; and Simon Paisley Day and Jenna Russell are gleefully villainous in their different ways, Russell deliciously arch as the fag-guzzling guardian of the garderobe. Soutra Gilmour’s split-level design digs deep into the auditorium to provide a surprisingly effective revolve (though sightlines at the extreme front and back may be problematic.
Dark and dingy, pungent and powerful, Urinetown makes for a great addition to London’s theatreland, continuing to prove the breadth and depth of what musical theatre can explore – not just the razzle-dazzle of chorus girls and dancing boys but a politically aware critique on the state of the nation (and its conveniences), and a deconstruction of the form itself. Just remember to put the seat down.