Urinetown

Music and lyrics by Mark Hollman, book and lyrics by Greg Kotis
Julian Stoneman Associates and The Araca Group
Apollo Theatre

Rosanna Hyland as Hope Cladwell and Matthew Seadon-Young as Bobby Strong Credit: Johan Persson
Matthew Seadon-Young as Bobby Strong, Jenna Russell as Penelope Pennywise and Cory English as Old Man Strong Credit: Johan Persson
Jonathan Singer as Officer Lockstock Credit: Johan Persson
Simon Paisley Day as Caldwell B Cladwell Credit: Johan Persson

Despite a song that goes, “There’s a bright shining world just waiting to start,” this the bundle of joy kind of musical. As Jonathan Slinger’s Police Officer Lockstock, acting as chorus, tells Karis Jack’s lively Little Sally and the audience “This isn’t a happy musical”. It is a dystopian story “full of symbols”.

What happens in a world that’s polluted and running out of resources? Urinetown puts aside all those idealistic notions and looks at the real world in which we live where entrepreneur capitalist opportunists can exploit any opportunity. A world where the man in the big house on the hill, Caldwell B Cladwell (Simon Paisley Day) set up UGC when they started to run out of water.

That's the Urine Good Company (say it) and with a law that says you have to use their pay-for urinals or get sent to Urinetown if you get caught going off to take a slash in the bushes. Where you always have to pay to go for a pee, Cladwell is raking in the dollars. The currency is American and so are the accents, but this could as easily be set in Britain or anywhere in the developed world.

Urinetown is political metaphor on the simplest of levels. A sharper critique of the system might not have been so successful on Broadway and across America, but Greg Kotis’s book presents a bleak prognosis. Though its hero and heroine in turn lead rebellion, the sunbreaks through only briefly and director Jamie Lloyd emphasises a bleak, bloody future. Why then, you might wonder, is the audience greeting it with such a joyful ovation?

Well, perhaps it is because it suggest that there can be good in all of us, that even the underdog can produce an unquenchable human spirit, but mainly because this is a show that self-referentially sends itself up and is packed with punchy performances and after the interval has a succession of sparkling numbers.

Matthew Seadon-Young plays Bobby Strong, the lavatory attendant who demands to pee free. He gives him an innocence idealism matched by a slowly emerging determination. Rosanna Hyland is the magnate’s daughter who falls for him; she is called Hope, but Hyland makes her a real girl as well as a symbol. The baddies are more cartoon-like, stylised in a way that stops things getting too gloomy.

Day’s Cladwell is wonderfully wicked—he makes even his jaw seems to mark him out as a villain—and Jenna Russell as operator of Urinal No 9 gives a stunning performance that’s a cross between a wicked witch and a fairy godmother, caught up between past love and commercial imperative.

There is a fantastic, brooding set by Soutra Gilmour, robotically jokey choreography by Ann Yee and a company that fills the theatre with energy. If the first half seems a little contrived and there are no songs that stay in your head before the interval, the second half makes you wish for encores.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton