Without doubt one of the funniest shows to grace the West End stage this decade – full of self-aware jokes, sideswipes at musical theatre, surprisingly good songs and a unique sense of political satire, Urinetown deserves to be seen.
On the pavement outside London’s Apollo Theatre, several people stopped to pass comment on the name of the show playing there; “Urinetown?” they all said incredulously, laughing and walking away half-intrigued and half-embarrassed. Within 5 minutes though, in the opening number, the show has already poked fun at its own name – no-one wants to see a show with such a bizarre name, one of just several ways to kill a musical.
But, having run for 3 years on Broadway and notched up 10 Tony nominations, Urinetown is actually something of a modern day success story. Not many shows with such an anti-capitalist message could survive on the New York stage for so long. It would suggest the show has real quality – something borne out by the uproarious laughter, the lengthy applause after each number and the standing ovation at the end of the performance at the London show’s press night.
Set in a dystopian future where a water shortage forces leaders to impose strict legislature banning private toilets, greedy corporation Urine Good Company ramps up the fees to make a profit from the poor relieving themselves. Public urination will get you sent to ‘Urinetown’ -a mythical place where offenders become the disappeared. Strapping public toilet custodian Bobby Strong, inspired by his love for Urine Good Company heiress Hope Cladwell and the need to avenge his father, leads the revolution so that the people can ‘pee for free’.
Again, the show makes self-aware jokes at its own expense – it knows that the logic of the show’s conceit is full of holes, but go along with it anyway; the absurdity of the concept allows the show to get away with the more edgy political satire. At times campy, at other times farcical and often a bit silly, the show is never political at the expense of being funny but, and the narrator will warn you of this too, Urinetown isn’t a ‘happy musical’ – fans of dark humour rejoice, this is the musical for you.
Self-conscious jokes and meta-theatrical material often falls flat in the theatre – Urinetown gets away with it. The musical feels very fresh, despite being first staged in New York over a decade ago, and the cast, superb direction and showy musical numbers performed with Gospel-like gusto were all very well received by an audience in complete stitches. Jenna Russell is especially good as the hard-hearted Penelope Pennywise, confirming what an excellent comic actress she is; RSC regular Jonathan Slinger is also superb as the streetwise narrator Officer Lockstock, and Matthew Seadon-Young and Rosanna Hyland are the perfect pair as ardent lovers Bobby & Hope.
The revolutionary plot and the love story tropes echo Les Mis whilst also completely taking the pee out of it. The show, just a few theatres down from the classic musical on Shaftesbury Avenue, couldn’t be for a more different crowd. But if you like funny musicals with a political bite, I implore you – don’t judge a show by its name, and don’t miss Urinetown.
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