Thomas Robert Malthus’ eighteenth-century essay on the troubles of population growth is hardly the most likely of stimuli for an all-singing, all-dancing musical. But then neither is an epic novel on the French Revolution or verbatim interviews with neighbours of a serial killer, and that didn’t stop the makers of Les Miserables and London Road. More so than those two shows, however, Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis’ Urinetown, playing at the St. James Theatre thirteen years after its opening off-Broadway, is aware of its own politics, commenting on and questioning its status as a piece of musical theatre. It’s a satire, and like the best satires it manages to be funny, hugely so, whilst also critiquing its context with often searing insight.
Coming so long after its original production, the UK première finds itself in the bizarre position of having an audience who may already be aware of the show’s content thanks to YouTube and online media libraries. Even those with no previous knowledge of the show are probably vaguely aware that its first half is set in a public amenity (run by the private business Urine Good Company) which pits the minority against the majority, with those who own the means of production regulating supply in a way which cripples and denigrates the poverty-stricken masses. This dystopian setting is in the aftermath of a population explosion and an ominous-sounding “Stink”, which has forced the poles of society already familiar to us to become even more pronounced, though UGC still propagandise their innate ‘goodness’: “I didn’t realise huge monopolising corporations could be such a force for good in the world,” says the CEO’s daughter, Hope Cladwell, with not an illiberal sprinkling of irony.
This irony and self-referentiality features throughout, led by Jonathan Slinger’s gleeful but snide Officer Lockstock, who reminds us of the tropes of musical theatre and comments on the actions of our ‘hero’, Bobby Strong (Richard Fleeshman), who decides to revolt against the UGC apparently due to his love for Hope. It’s a knowingly ridiculous premise, but goes some way to demonstrating the futility and impossibility of fighting for love only; “It’s all that really matters, isn’t it? Love,” says Little Sally, but we know better.
Importantly, Urinetown never simplifies its politics, and its perpetual ability to surprise in Jamie Lloyd’s dirty, hilarious production is testament to its ability to ask questions. We find ourselves caught up in the revolution against private businesses, but our complicity becomes problematic at the show’s brutal climax, which reaches deep into Malthus’ ruminations on the population problem and throws it out to us to invent a future where a happier musical may be possible (and less irresponsible). Hollmann and Kotis have created a rich, layered piece of work which doesn’t allow us to simply sit back and enjoy.
Saying that, however, this is one of the most entertaining musicals on the West End, striking the balance between parody and politics perfectly. The tropes littered throughout Hollmann’s score are recognisable but non-specific, ensuring we’re all in on the joke, and reach their zenith with the side-splitting and joyously executed gospel parody, ‘Run, Freedom, Run!’ The hard-working ensemble gasp, dance and shout “WHAT?!” with the same faux-earnestness found in more traditional musical fare, but framed by Slinger’s wry humour become hugely likeable in their cartoon conditions, supported by Ann Yee’s jerky, disconcerting choreography.
Lloyd directs his cast with panache, who walk the line between ridiculous and just-about-believable. The American accents of the original have been kept, allowing the central pairing of Fleeshman and Rosanna Hyland (Hope) to take on all the doe-eyed unpalatable sweetness of Broadway, whilst Jenna Russell’s Miss Pennywise is a pastiche of the gruff-but-caring-woman caricature we know so well. Simon Paisley Day’s cynical Cladwell is all the archetypes of an evil business-owner rolled into one, and Karis Jack as Little Sally embodies all the childish optimism we wish we could hold onto as adults (“When a young girl has as many lines as I do, there’s still hope for dreams!”).
Soutra Gilmour’s dark, grungy steampunk-inspired set – complete with three revolves – only adds to the questions raised about ownership and autonomy, taking inspiration from a movement which encourages its followers to reappropriate objects around them in order to take control of their surrounding aesthetic. The references to the industry and disparity of Victorian Britain are useful, too, suggesting that structures of our present moment may be more archaic than we’d like to think. Indeed, with its impossibility to be read literally, visualisation of mechanics and recycling of material, there are arguments for steampunk being the ideal theatrical aesthetic.
The theatre’s ownership by a for-profit media group inevitably problematises some of the show’s politics, but actually that seems to be in the spirit of Urinetown’s self-awareness, which refuses to give answers and holds us all accountable (“Do you think I paid for you to go to the most expensive university in the world to feel conflicted? Or to manipulate masses of people?”, says Cladwell). It questions the nature of hope, love and revolution without shutting down their possibility in the future, and though it may perpetuate our cynical times rather than undermining them, you’d be hard-pushed to find a musical which does so with quite as much humour and intelligence as this.