Baby, can’t you see, I’m calling. A show like this, should wear a warning…that warning should be avoid the front row if you’re squeamish about having your face touched by strangers! For The Toxic Avenger is nothing if not hands on, drawing its Southwark Playhouse audience right into its B-movie world, the poison paradise of the New Jersey town of Tromaville. And as we come to see, whether just a taste on the lips or a full-body dunking, the effects of toxic waste Based on the 1984 film of the same name, a cult classic of which
I hadn’t heard, its hero is Melvin Ferd the Third, a geeky scientist determined to clean up the town but who soon finds himself the victim of such a dunking. Transformed and deformed, he emerges as Toxie, the Toxic Avenger – all rippling abs and dangling eyeballs – and newly fortified to tackle the dastardly Mayor whose scheming has caused the pollution and also take the plunge with hot blind librarian Sarah who rejected him as a nerd.
But don’t let anything as prosaic as an age-old plot get in the way of how silly and schlocky the fun here is. Benji Sperring’s direction is witty and warm, ridiculous and yet still reverential to the musical form to which it constantly pays homage. Both the staging and the writing (Joe DiPietro’s book, David Bryan’s music and shared lyrics) feel rooted in a long tradition of cultish entertainment and it’s hard not to get swept up in the exuberance of it all, especially given the brightness of Alex Beetschen’s musical direction.
If it falls down a tiny bit, it’s in not quite having enough heart to its central romance. Little Shop of Horrors works so well because you’re so invested in Seymour and Audrey and whilst the emotional transformation of Mark Anderson’s Toxie is wryly done, Hannah Grover’s brashly funny Sarah ends up a little one-note, you crave more character to go with the comedy and perhaps a little less reliance on the gags about being blind. They’re still an engaging couple but the attention is pulled elsewhere.
Namely to the other three company members who steal pretty much every scene they enter. Lizzii Hills gets the show’s standout moment in ‘Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore’ when her Mayor duets with Melvin’s mother, who is also played by her, it’s thrillingly well done as is the number that precedes it ‘Evil is Hot’. And Ashley Samuels and Marc Pickering as the two ‘dudes’ who cover the dozens of townsfolk in the story are just genius, waiting to see who they would emerge as next was always an absolute delight and without fail, hilarious.
With musical influences from gospel to folk augmenting its rock’n’roll and a keen ear for a memorable chorus sending you humming into the night, The Toxic Avenger is actually a more substantial musical than you might expect and so marks an astute choice for Aria Entertainments to import here for its European premiere. And receiving as strong a production as it does here makes it a successful one too – I think I’m ready now, intoxicate me now.