Urinetown – The Musical, St James Theatre, London – review

Soon after the start a ripple ran round the auditorium, and by the end it had them standing in the stalls. I know, I know, but it’s hard to resist gags like those. Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’s 2001 Broadway hit is not as sniggersome about its setting as the London fringe’s 1990s offering Flush – The Musical, but it still gets a lot of mileage out of obvious humour. Also out of genre parody, metatheatrical observation and just about everything else that occurs to it.

In a dystopian future, chronic water shortages are addressed by the abolition of private toilet facilities. If you want to go, you go in a public, corporate-owned “amenity” which, naturally, charges exorbitantly. Then a hunky young attendant is radicalised by a swift one-two: first, his father is sent to Urinetown (ie put to death) for peeing in a place other than the one provided; and second, he falls in love with an idealistic young woman who turns out to be the daughter of the big corporate cheese. Cue riot in cistern block #9 (sorry again).

It’s a comprehensively knowing project. As well as the schoolboy giggles, there are the musical allusions: I spotted pastiches/parodies of Brecht/Weill, Sondheim, Les Mis and Kander & Ebb, and I’m sure I missed several more. The tough-cop narrator and his little-girl interlocutor engage in discussions about what a musical like this can and can’t do. It also dares to eschew a happy ending by suggesting that the brutal measures imposed were necessary to ensure some kind of regulated water supply, and it namechecks political economist and catastrophist Thomas Malthus. But this great gumbo doesn’t amount to a mess; there is more than enough firing, on a number of levels, to keep pretty much anyone engaged and stimulated.

Jamie Lloyd has long been known as a fine director of musicals, but since his student days he has been drawn especially to self-aware pieces of this kind. He has assembled a fine cast, with Richard Fleeshman as the young hero, Simon Paisley Day as the wicked breadhead, Jenna Russell belting out numbers as the senior attendant (Urethra Franklin? Sorry, sorry) and Royal Shakespeare Company stalwart Jonathan Slinger relishing his sinister narrator role. For this relief, much thanks.


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