Measure for Measure, Act 3, Scene 1
Who would have thought a musical with a name like Urinetown could be quite so fantastic? I went into the Apollo Theatre last Thursday afternoon with a curious mixture of low and high expectations; I mean, the name, the dark dystopian subject matter (which I’ll explain later) and the fact that I got a £15 front row ticket, all told me not to get my hopes up. And yet… have you seen the reviews?! Five stars from The Telegraph, four stars from just about everywhere else – surely it had to be pretty good, right?
The basic premise is that, in America, twenty or thirty years into the future, they have been suffering from a serious drought. So serious, in fact, that private bathrooms are non-existent and everyone must use public toilets – you have to pay to pee. And, like in any good dystopia, the rich (the owners of the urinals, UGC or Urine Good Company *ba-doom-tsh*) are getting richer and the poor are suffering because of it. Anyone who pees on the street or refuses to pay is taken to the terrifying ‘Urinetown’ and never seen again; I’m sure you can imagine exactly what ‘Urinetown’ actually stands for in this kind of society. When Bobby Strong, the assistant at Public Amenity #9 – the grottiest bathrooms of them all – and Hope Cladwell, daughter of UGC Director, Caldwell B. Cladwell, meet in the streets and fall in love instantaneously, this sparks off a chain of events which change the landscape of the city forever.
Yes, it sounds totally mental, and dark, and depressing, but it’s not like they don’t realise it and play on it to the utmost. Our guides, Officer Lockstock (played with a great mixture of compassion and cynicism by Jonathan Slinger) and Little Sally (Karis Jack, who holds her own perfectly against Slinger) constantly break the fourth wall and make references to all the problems with the musical, a touch which I, personally, loved. There are also some fantastic bits of over-the-top gospel in there, which are not only really funny but also very well sung.
The songs themselves are great; there were definitely touches of Little Shop of Horrors in there. And unlike in other recent musicals, they are actually catchy – so much so that they are now playing on my Spotify. I’m not saying they’re the new “One Day More” or “Edelweiss” or anything, but they are well sung, clever and memorable.
However, the thing that stood out the most for me was the ensemble cast as a whole. There were, of course, some standout players: Julie Jupp as Penelope Pennywise; Phill Juppitus as Caldwell B. Cladwell; Rosanna Hyland as a naïve Hope Cladwell; Matthew Seadon-Young as idealistic Bobby Strong (although sometimes he seemed just a little too quiet for my liking). These characters could have been awful had the actors not realised the comedic potential to their stereotypical ‘hero’ and ‘heroine’ labels and used this to their advantage.
But it’s the ensemble who make the musical. Kane Oliver Parry, Jeff Nicholson, Aaron Lee Lambert, Madeleine Harland, Liz Ewing, Cory English and Katie Bernstein (I have to mention all of them!) are all hyper-energetic and all make each character they play unique and interesting. Everyone is just so full of character, it’s hard to know where to look on the stage; everyone is constantly performing which I absolutely love. Any production where I begin to look out for certain ensemble cast members is a good one in my book. In fact, if there’s one problem with the show it’s that great characters like Mr McQueen (Alisdair Buchan) don’t get enough lines! I want to know all of their backstories; each of them should have a song to themselves.
Okay, enough gushing.
The staging is well done, with the revolving stage adding a lot to the action. However, there are two levels to the stage, obviously symbolising the upper and lower classes. Unfortunately this meant that, from the front row, at least, much of the performance on the upper level is lost, and you have to just rely on voices and maybe vague shadows to tell you what’s going on. Helpfully, the actors don’t stay up there for long, but it’s still a little irritating.
This is really the only fault I can find with the musical, however, and it really wasn’t a major disturbance. As far as I’m concerned, Urinetown is highly recommended and it’s shocking that the theatre wasn’t fuller when I went – admittedly, it was a Thursday matinee, but still. Theatre-goers, I expected more of you! This is a brilliant, unique musical, in an age where people complain of the non-originality of ‘new’ musicals on Broadway and in the West End. If you enjoyed Avenue Q or The Book of Mormon, you’ll love this as much as I did.
Urinetown at Apollo Theatre: 5/5 stars