In 1959, there was a TV AD campaign for a cigarette called ‘Strand’. This featured a man in a hat and raincoat smoking a cigarette on a dark, deserted street corner.
The legend ‘You’re never alone with a Strand’ actually heralded advertisings greatest flop! It seemed no one wanted to be alone and the brand died before it could inflict a lonely death on its potential users.
The title ‘Urinetown’ is possibly the most unappealing title for a musical as it is possible to envisage;
“Where are you going tonight?” –
“Urinetown” – “Really?”
The title of this musical is not the only challenge for an audience as it revels in randomness offering up parody, provocation and passion by the bucket load, flitting twixt sentimentality and sadism via a book and score by Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis.
The show is set in a near apocalyptic America where years of drought have brought about such a shortage of water that private bathrooms are banned and only pay-on-entry public loos are allowed (just like Euston station). Disobeying this law means you are carted off by the UGC (Urine Good Company) police to the mysterious Urinetown.
We are sharply introduced to the action by Officer Lockstock – Brendan Stanley – who can be forgiven the rocky accent as he offers such a full on and engaging performance as part brutal, part compere, part comedian and part soft under-bellied cop.
Next we meet ‘the queue for loo’ chorus, swaying and clutching their bowels as they wait in line to pay their money for their daily pee. (You’ll be grateful for having made that comfort break before the curtain at this point – if not – cross your legs ‘til the interval)
Sitting at the desk and taking the money is Penelope Pennywise who looks like a nightmarish prison guard and is played to wonderful masochistic perfection by Helen Parsons. Francis Mallon, every inch a rebellious aging CND hippy as Joseph Strong, breaks the line and the law with a public peeing and is carted off by the UGC to a fate unknown until Act 2.
His son, Bobby Strong, the love interest juve-lead nicely portrayed by Nicholas Brady, goes from toilet attendant to rebel leader.
Watching from the sidelines is the adorable Little Sally, a tiny, teeny, tart with a heart – played with lashings of lump-in-your-throat moments by Charlotte Upton.
Enter the big bad corporate wolf – Caldwell B. Cladwell – nicely nasty, slick and slippery and perfectly portrayed by Mark Horne. As always in times of economic and ecological crisis there are those who see a profit in poverty and dividends in despair – that’s Cladwell!
You could be forgiven at this point if you thought that Dorothy had been caught by the wrong twister and landed in Urinetown as Cladwell’s daughter ‘Hope’ joins us in a gust of saccharin innocence and privilege – a joy to watch and hear performance from Laura Poyner.
Ploughing a well-planned and executed path through the minefields this show presents, director Alan K. Marshall neither makes it too dark or too silly – he offers spectacle first and cerebral pondering on greed and exploitation second – quite rightly letting the audience be happy, yet mindful. He is served by an extremely well drilled, well sung, fleet-of-foot company, who never once lose their focus.
Musical Director Gary Spruce has done a grand job and he should be justly proud of the voices and music he has nurtured to excellence. All the numbers are good but ‘Run, freedom, Run’ is a total showstopper!
The costuming and setting are excellent and a special shout out to sound creation by Kristan Webb who provided the perfect balance.
Urinetown by the resident group at Birmingham’s Crescent Theatre runs until June 2 – My verdict is ‘awesome’ and well worth spending the pennies on!
Review by Euan Rose