Urinetown…yes you read that right. A show with a silly enough title – with a plot to match its boastful name – will have you questioning ethics about the growth of our modern world, the consequences about how we approach the fragility of the earth, and whether or not a musical based around urine and defecation is actually worth your time…spoilers, it is.
The central conceit of Urinetown is simple enough, a dystopian version of our future world finds the great divide between the rich and the poor even more prominent when the water supply has all but dried up, forcing large corporations to monitor and charge citizens to go to the bathroom – with those corporate big-shots rolling in their emolument.
This is the point where I warn you that if you aren’t prepared enough to open yourself to some silliness and more than a little bit of slapstick that both honours and tears apart the very components of musical theatre (with some nods to Brecht) then save your money. It’s certainly brave of the Gallery Players to take on a show that can either be a finely polished satirical piece of theatre or the polar opposite, a woeful waste of your precious night out. I’m glad to say that Gallery Players’ production of Urinetown is the former.
Upon first walking into the Sir John Mills Theatre in Ipswich, I was first of all pleasantly reminded of how simple, yet effective, amateur dramatic societies can make of a space. Director Helen Clarke’s setting of the dystopic city is enough to make Orwell blush. In the far background of behind a thinly veiled screen stands the Urine Good Company tower, lit as a constant beacon of the oppression bearing down on the lower-class citizens meagre, bladder breaking existence.
The show opens with the classic brechtian fourth-wall-breaking trope by Officer Lockstock, a corrupt officer who serves as our narrator for the show, and Little Sally, a poor beggar orphan, who instantly remind us that we are indeed watching a musical. Here, a method used to drive the shows message into the audience, we are constantly advised to remember that there are meanings to contemplate. Everything, well almost everything, about the show is told here (we are told not get too bogged down in “exposition”, that can kill a show) and the satire begins when Little Sally questions the absurdity of the name of the show.
In my opinion, this trope is a little too on the nose. Personally, I don’t particularly like to go to the theatre to see a show tear itself apart but again this is borrowed from Brecht, again, not everyone’s cup of theatre.
The show continues from here as we are introduced to the “hero” of the play Bobby Strong (played by Wade Ablitt) and the cartoonish “heroine” Hope Cladwell (Zoe Ransome), who is (GASP) the daughter of the villain Caldwell B. Cladwell (Martin Leigh), CEO of Urine Good Company. What follows is an absurd story of love, hope and revolution – with a very clear love letter to Les Miserables at the end of Act One.
For those still trying to get their head around what to expect, my friend leaned over to me at the end of Act One and said “I’d describe this as a satirically decrepit version of Newsies“.
Whilst the writing of Urinetown can at times be a bit hit-and-miss (for instance the social commentary and sprinkling of musical theatre references may go over the heads of those new to the genre or just looking for an enjoyable night out) the music is really the selling point of this show – and why shouldn’t it? It’s a musical, right?
As Bobby Strong, Wade Ablitt, is a superb singer who more than flexes his ability to belt out some of the shows more memorable songs – “Run, Freedom Run” was a particular highlight for me. Although at times he may struggle to keep a straight face in the shows more rib-tickling lines and his characterisation can at times fall under the struggle to make Bobby more than two-dimensional, he clearly holds his own whilst on stage and exudes confidence in his stage presence.
As Hope Cladwell, Zoe Ransome may sometimes struggle to match her partners belting musical notes but her character never once falters; borrowing inspiration from what I can only assume is a mix between Betty Boop and Popeye’s Olive Oil, Ransome brings control to Hopes character and her inevitable (GASP) turn from her father to joining the free to pee revolution.
Next to the leads of the show were some mentionable highlights such as Penelope Pennywise (Natasha Staffieri), pulling influence from Chicago’s Mamma Morton and embracing the slapstick comedy with gusto. The archetypal villain Cladwell, played by Martin Leigh is sickly villainous and feels like he’s been taken straight out of Congress and placed on the Ipswich stage. The professionalism and oily nature that Leigh brings to the performance is always strong – a particular mention should go to his ability to balance on a table that was not locked into place properly, well done sir!
As the narrator of the show Officer Lockstock (Roger Jackaman) could have commanded more attention from his audience, I sometimes found myself drifting away during bits of dialogue between Lockstock and Little Sally (Bronte Fletcher). However, both characters served their roles well and their relationships between the other characters were clear throughout, each having their own moments to stand out.
My favourite part of any theatrical performance is when I am privileged to see a show with a strong ensemble and the ensemble of this performance of Urinetown was a well-oiled machine. Each member knew who their character was, their motives, their place and were able to serve the play consistently. As the knifewielding Hot Blades Harry, Harry Cant felt like a stylised version of The Joker. In the spirit of signalling actors out, Tasha Abbott as Little Becky Two Shoes and April Rand as Soupy Sue were impossible to stop watching at different points in the show. It is a joy to find an ensemble member you can’t help but be drawn to and these two young performers did so with ease.
In the space that was provided to them, the group decided to use backing tracks. This was both a hindrance to the performance as well as an ease of access in the small theatre. Sometimes it broke from what was a finely tuned performance – perhaps having a small band on stage might have added to the brechtian style the show requires.
In terms of choreography, again the space didn’t allow for flashy broadway styled numbers, although in saying this, the show doesn’t necessarily require it; the direction from Clarke here is clear. In saying this, the choreography in numbers such as “Snuff That Girl” was a standout and the ensemble (again wonderful) managed the high-speed choreography with ease. It’s only a shame that choreography in Act One was not as well performed.
For a journey to see an AmDram show that was well outside my radius, I can say this was an enjoyable night at the theatre, I would willingly go and see another performance that Gallery Players Theatre Company put on, providing that the ensemble is as strong as this one!
Stin’s Final Thoughts: Urinetown…urine for a fun time! (See what I did there?)
Urinetown is now playing at the Sir John Mills Theatre in Ipswich until this Saturday (8 April). Click the link below for information and tickets.