Review – Urinetown

As we enjoy a short heatwave this week it’s good timing for Bromley Players’ production of a musical about a water shortage to hit town. Although I’d heard of Urinetown (premiered in 2001 and not a title you’re likely to forget) I wasn’t aware of the story but was persuaded to see it by the description on the Bromley Players website. I was pleasantly pleased to find it’s all done in the best possible taste with a rich vein of dark and fourth-wall-breaking humour. Not the lavatorial jokes one might expect if this had been a British-authored show. Music and lyrics are by Mark Hollmann with book and lyrics by Greg Kotis.

The premise is that a permanent water shortage has resulted in the privatisation of all toilet facilities under the monopolistic control of UGC (Urine Good Company). With the local police in the pocket of UGC, citizens who fail to pay to use their ‘amenities’ (for example by sneaking out at night behind a bush) find themselves exiled to Urinetown. The central story attached to this is that Hope starts working at UGC where her father is CEO. A price-hike to use the ‘amenities’ results in a rebellion by one group of citizens, who refuse to pay. Meanwhile Hope has fallen for local bad boy Bobby Strong, and he for her – he not realising her family connections and she not realising Bobby is leading the rebellion against Daddy’s company.

We are guided through this by our narrator – Matthew Westrip as police officer Lockstock – who is immediately engaging with a winning way. He inspires confidence and cunningly lets the audience in on the game – under-cutting any concerns we might have about how a musical about toilets can work by addressing them head on. Westrip’s performance is right on the mark. He sets a tone and a standard that gets the audience on board for what’s to come and keeps that up throughout, helping us through this satire of corporate greed, politics and the American musical itself.

As the optimistic and altruistic Hope, Alex Warrham brings a wide-eyed innocence to her role, neatly transforming from fax slash copy girl at Daddy’s office to being smitten with Bobby Strong, all achieved in the brilliant duet Follow Your Heart, with her clear voice ringing out. ‘Daddy’ is Cladwell B C’adwell played with stern resolve and a kind of ruthless charm by Shane King. In his orbit is Laurie Brown’s Penelope Pennywise, who – fag always on – operates the amenities on the ground and has a presence to inspire fear and trepidation in anyone thinking of disagreeing with her. Adrian Smith is the corrupt senator Fipp who gets UGC’s wishes approved by the legislature, less then manfully struggling with both his conscience and an executive brief case. Cory Wordlaw has a ball as rebel gang member Hotblades Harry, who is more interested in killing anyone connected with UGC than in winning his right to pee free. His accomplice is Little Becky Two-Shoes. As played by Claire Goad she is reminiscent of Daryl Hannah in Blade Runner with her wild eyes and equally wild hair. A manic, intense and consistent performance through the whole evening. The are numerous other parts for members of this talented company to enjoy, all executed with individual style and not a duff moment from any of them.

Tom Harvey, meanwhile, as Bobby is the initially unlikely rebel leader, driven by guilt over his father’s death and love for Hope, to take on UGC. He’s a good looking and watchable leading man, sensitive as well as tough. He gets to lead the entire company in the show-stopping gospel-style Run, Freedom, Run!, a number which on its own is worth the price of a ticket and a masterclass for any theatre company in how to pull off a big number.

It’s not a large stage at The Bob Hope Theatre, but a simple, fleixible set combined with great lighting creates a space which the large cast (over 30 I guess) really uses well. And every one of the ensemble brings their own character to life. The band are great, expertly led by their (tap dancing!) MD James Hall, picking up numerous complicated cues effortlessly. The choreography by William Rye is snappy and smart, executed to a high standard by the dancers in the cast. And the whole show is full of invention and energy thanks to outstanding direction by Daniel Lawrence.

Urinetown is at the Bob Hope Theatre, Eltham until Saturday 21 April.

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