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A CurtainUp London London Review

"How about bad subject matter? Or a bad title? That could kill a show pretty good." — Little Sally
Rosanna Hyland as Hope Cladwell and Richard Fleeshman as Bobby Strong (Photo: Johan Persson)
A number of producers have tried and failed to bring Urinetown the musical to London after its successful, Tony award winning run on Broadway, where it transferred from modest beginnings in the New York Fringe Festival. So all credit to the management of the relatively new St James's Theatre in Victoria and director Jamie Lloyd for securing the rights and mounting such a handsome, West End quality production that's creating a real buzz.

Last week I wrote a blog for a national newspaper proposing that critical analysis in musical theatre is virtually redundant. The crowd loving it and telling their friends is far more important than the pontificating of any self proclaimed theatre expert. So I'm happy to report that the friends and family of the cast went crazy for Urinetown on the press night I attended. I hope they spread the word. I hope it's packed every night and provides employment for all those artists for a very long time. But . . .

But . . . God only knows why this particular spoof musical made it to Broadway when squillions of other stronger US spoof musicals don't. (And the musical theatre festivals over there are always groaning with them.)

It's set in a spoof Gotham City type nightmare where a big corporation controls all the toilet facilities and you have to pay a fine to pee or risk the cops beating you up if you nip behind a bush.

The poor rebel against the corporation, led by a hunky male toilet attendant and kidnap the big business boss's daughter. The two have an ill fated romance before everyone realises that the water rationing the corporation had instigated was a good idea for the environment and usefully regulated water supply and demand. So even though the capitalists were parasitic crooks we kind of need them. That's capitalism for you, kids!

Performed like a cartoon, everything about the production screams and I mean screams at you not to take the plot seriously, the love affair seriously or the point it's making seriously.

The spoof songs are quite funny. A pastiche gospel number has been a lazy way of stirring up the audience since "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat" in Guys and Dolls and the one in Urinetown absolutely hits the spot.

The leading man (Richard Fleeshman) is cute as hell as both washroom attendant and rabble rouser, in a spray on tight T shirt, Jenna Russell as his boss seems to be doing a very persuasive audition for Mrs Lovett and the physical production is stunning, borrowing readily from Terry Gilliam's film Brazil in fifty shades of steam punk grey.

Soutra Gilmore's beautiful set resembles a giant sewer pipe rising vertically up through the floor which can rotate to suggest various locations . The bottom half usually represents the inside or outside of one of the least salubrious urinals in town where the poorest members of society must save or beg for admission. The top half usually represents the offices of big business.

But for all the cast's yelling and running around and yelling and spoofing and mugging and narration that keeps making fun of the fact that it's a musical... Did I mention the yelling? What's it all add up to? In my opinion a pretty empty experience.

It successfully screams at you not to engage your emotions, it debunks any facile, blindingly obvious liberal truism it makes the moment it makes it. And so not for a moment does it touch your heart or engage your intellect with anything more interesting than "greedy corporations are evil but capitalism is probably ok"

Great spoofy songs and some funny lines but is that enough to satisfy you and justify such a lavish production?

For reviews in New York and a complete song list go here.

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Music/Lyrics: Mark Hollman
Book/Lyrics: Greg Kotis
Directed by Jamie Lloyd
Starring: Jenna Russell, Richard Fleeshman, Jonathan Slinger, Simon Paisley Day, Rosanna Hyland
With: Chris Bennett, Katie Bernstein, Alasdair Buchan, Marc Elliot, Cory English, Madeleine Harland, Karis Jack, Julie Jupp, Aaron Lee Lambert, Mark Meadows, Joel Montague, Jo Napthine, Jeff Nicholson, Adam Pearce, Charlotte Scott, Matthew Seadon-Young
Designed by Soutra Gilmour
Sound: Terry Jardine and Nick Lidster
Lighting: Adam Silverman
Choreographer: Ann Yee
Orchestrations: Bruce Coughlin
Musical Supervisor: Alan Williams
Running time: Two hours 15 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 0844 264 2140
Booking to 3rd May 2014
Reviewed by Phil Willmott based on 18th March 2014 performance at St James Theatre, 12 Palace Street, London SW1E 5JA (Rail/Tube: Victoria/St James' Park)

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