Urinetown the Musical has opened at The Apollo Theatre- I was disappointed.
Urinetown is an attempt to create a disturbing piece set in a dsystopian world where, after years of drought, private toilet facilities are banned, with people forced to pay extortionate fees to use scarce and filthy amenities run by an avaricious big business firm. It is also a parody of both the traditional and Brechtian style of musical.
After Jamie Lloyd’s production enjoyed great success at St James theatre, with good reviews, I had anticipated the evening with great hope and had fully expected to enjoy it. I am sorry to say I did not.
The cast were excellent, full of energy and commitment, displaying all the high standards of requisite skills expected in a West End musical. Jenna Russell, always polished and inspirational, has a commanding presence as the miserly and unyielding Penelope Pennywise. Rosanna Hyland and Matthew Seadon-Young are suitably attractive with lovely voices, and Karis Jack is terrific as Little Sally.
Members of the ensemble each have individual characters and moments to shine too, and the design and costumes are effective.
The problem is the piece itself. It simply lacks grounding and focus. The joke of its own self-consciousness wears thin very quickly and is, frankly, overdone. The idea of examining the Malthusian Catastrophe, where the world becomes so overpopulated that basic resources run out, and its horrible consequences, how the “good guys” can so easily become a violent mob, and the Kafka concept of right and wrong being turned on its head in an overarching faceless bureaucracy, is a good one. It could have worked.
To make it work, however, the characters need to be real, not pastiche. Just as in The Threepenny Opera, which gives inspiration to the piece, though parodied, we need to really care about the central characters, including the anti-heroes. The death of the leading man should make the audience gasp, and either change our perception or make us want to see his vindication. As it stands, even the cheering friends in the opening night audience did not really care either about his fate or the point of the story. The unrelenting “fun”, tinged with unnecessarily unpleasant violence, and the unremitting cynicism in its presentation precluded any real thought or engagement.
The music also fell short. It is fine to send up traditional musical numbers, including gospels, but there needs to be something real for the listener to grasp on to. Again, it was all pastiche, leaving the work ultimately unsatisfying.
This is a show trying to be too clever, with too many elements. It may develop a cult following, but it lacks all the true cleverness of the cult classic Rocky Horror Picture Show, the brilliance of Kafka and the genuinely disturbing scripts and scores of Brecht and Weil.