Urinetown - a fun musical with an unlikely name
- Credit: Archant
If your mum enjoys a good musical or you are arranging a first theatre date with a new girlfriend, you might want to think hard about booking this show. It’s a multi-Tony Award-winner, sharp and funny but for Pete’s sake don’t mention the title until your guest is strapped firmly in their seat.
It is called Urinetown, probably the most off-putting name ever given to a play or musical but it had Broadway and West End audiences sort of wetting themselves with laughter at its daring, sometimes disturbing, outrageous humour.
Urinetown is set in a Gotham-like city where a 20-year drought has caused a crippling water shortage and, to cut consumption, the government has outlawed the use of private toilets. People must use public pay-per-use amenities owned and operated by Urine Good Company (UGC), a private corporation run by the corrupt, iron-fisted Caldwell B Cladwell.
Anyone who refuses to pay is immediately and without question hauled off to Urinetown and is never heard of again while the citizens are going mad, desperate for relief. However, help is at hand because a humble lavatory attendant decides he’s had enough, turns hero and starts a revolution to lead them all to freedom.
The musical is staged unsurprisingly by Gallery Players who are always at the forefront with the unusual, the avant-garde and Urinetown runs for a week and a half at the John Mills Theatre at the end of the month. Whatever possessed the writers to give the show its name is difficult to guess because the Americans are usually pretty queasy and coy about these matters.
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In Britain it might have been called something like The Porcelain Revolt or Flushed Out or even, since there is an element of romance, Love on the Lav. Writer Greg Kotis was travelling in Europe and living on a student budget when to his dismay he discovered that most public toilets on the Continent are pay-to-use.
Nearly broke he had to ration his visits and the idea for Urinetown was born. “With composer Mark Hollman he created a hilarious, daring and thought-provoking send-up of greed, love, revolution and politics, in a time when water is worth its weight in gold,” says Helen Clarke who is directing.”
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What makes this show so special, she says, is that it’s also a gleeful parody of other musicals, ranging from The Beggar’s Opera and Les Miserables to Chicago and Guys and Dolls with a hint of Hello Dolly thrown in. “It’s a real show for our time. Fans will have huge fun spotting all the famous shows and genres sent up in the musical numbers.”
Gallery Players have assembled an outstanding company for this one with Wade Ablitt (Assassins by Mad Hatter Productions and CO2’s Carousel) as the toilet attendant turned revolutionary Bobby Strong, and Martin Leigh (A Man of No Importance) as the sinister businessman Cladwell.
Gallery stalwarts Roger Jackaman and Phil Cory are Officers Lockstock and Barrel, two cops on the shady side of the law. Newcomers Zoe Ransome and Bronte Fletcher take the roles of heroine Hope Cladwell and feisty street urchin Little Sally with Natasha Staffieri as Penelope Pennyworth, the cynical manager of Public Amenity No.9, who hides a surprising secret. Staffieri is also musical director, with the very experienced Steph Brown as choreographer.
Urinetown, which offers an interesting challenge to the set designer, one you can almost smell, is infused with the spirit of Bertolt Brecht, says Helen Clarke. It’s brilliant, disturbing and emotional and aims to engage the audience through their brains instead of their hearts and there’s no happy ending.
It was heaped with praise on both sides of the Atlantic. The show premiered on Broadway in 2001 and became the sensation of the season, receiving ten Tony nominations and winning best score, best book and best director, though curiously, not best musical. But it’s not the first time this has happened. Clive Barnes of the New York Post described it as “a wild and happy mix of biting satire and loving parody”.
It is, says Clarke, part of a tradition of live theatre that makes us laugh, makes us take a hard look at our society and, perhaps most importantly, makes us think. And she feels audiences will recognise a lot of current concerns as the plot unravels and they enjoy the show’s irreverent take on them.
“It works on so many levels and each person watching will take away a slightly different message, question or experience, some of them not a million miles away from the politics of today but the humour is always there. As Al Capone liked to say: We laugh because it’s funny and we laugh because it’s true.”
But, says Clarke, if you let the “bad subject matter” put you off, you will miss one of the most exciting and original musicals of recent years.
Urinetown is at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich, 29 March to 8 April. Tickets: 01473 211498 and www.galleryplayers.co.uk