The thing about Urinetown’s thing is that it isn’t really a thing at all. Everyone from this production’s director Jamie Lloyd to several characters in the show itself acknowledge that Urinetown is an awful title. Except of course it isn’t an awful title, it’s the reason most people first heard of the show, and probably the reason a lot of people come to see it. But it turns out that the show’s conceit – about a world devoid of water where people are forced to pay ever escalating prices for vanishingly few public conveniences, peeing elsewhere being illegal – is for the most part just that, a conceit. It’s what Hitchcock would have called a MacGuffin, a device central to moving the plot along but ultimately unimportant or uninteresting in itself. And despite the fact that there’s even a song in the show called ‘Too much exposition’ warning how much damage this can do to a musical, exposition is for a long time really all we get. The plot fails to engage with any of the realities of the particular world it creates, meaning it also fails to extract any dramatic or comic grist from it.
That’s not necessarily a problem, of course. MacGuffins have a fine and noble history in storytelling. And nobody ever criticised a cheese board for being underpinned by a lump of unexciting but necessary wood. But if the show’s big gimmick is merely a setup, what, you find yourself asking more and more, is it a setup for? From the beginning the show kicks a hole in the fourth wall with its two narrators, Little Sally and Officer Lockstock reminding us that this is just a musical. Some of the biggest laughs of the evening arise from this running gag, but ultimately, though it’s peppered with nods to musicals from Les Mis to Sweeney Todd, it’s not really clever enough to work as a pastiche and rather comes over as a slice of overweaning early 2000s post-modern knowingness.
If it doesn’t succeed as a pastiche musical, neither does it quite work as genuine musical. There are too many ‘this is who I am, this is what I do’ type numbers, and as a whole the score is forgettable and the lyrics (over-reliant on multiple rhymes) are thuddy. The major exception to this is ‘Run, Freedom, Run’, the show’s 11th hour number and a pastiche gospel song (which are a bit of a Broadway tradition in themselves). This is so genuinely rousing (the round of applause that greeted it lasted for a good minute and a half) and so much better than anything else in the show that for a good while I was convinced they must have borrowed it from another musical, or copied it from some internet musical writing cheat site.
The show’s characters are endearing enough but wafer thin, meaning that though each gets their moment to crack a few decent gags, they never rise above the level of disposably amusing.
If Urinetown is a cheeseboard then, it’s an array of Port Salut, Babybel and that stuff with cranberries in – entertaining while it lasts but unlikely to linger longer in the memory than its plasticy flavours.
That said, this is a game production with a strong ensemble cast, led by the nuclear-powered Richard Fleeshman and the eerily Kate Middletonian Rosanna Hoyland, who lend real charm to lead characters with about as much depth as Bambi. More disappointing is RSC stalwart Jonathan Stringer, who plays his role as narrator with 300% more signposting than is strictly necessary, and an irksome self-conscious ‘I’ma Shaykespeeearean aaaactuh doin Noi Yoik’ accent. Jamie Lloyd’s direction keeps the show zipping along, though (as with his Hothouse last year) it’s all painted with a very broad brush. Soutra Gilmour’s design is effective, enhancing the subterranean intimacy of the (really very exciting) new St James Theatre.
It was all more than enough to satisfy the audience, made up disproportionately of way-too-into-this Americans and middle aged people who had no idea why they were there.
And it must be said that the show builds to a surprisingly interesting ending, during which Lloyd finally musters some memorable stage imagery, and the book finally finds something to say about something. Subverting your expectations and raising some real questions, it’s an ending that – like the sudden relief at the end of an interminable toilet queue – almost makes all the empty moments wasted getting there worthwhile.
Urinetown plays at the St James Theatre until 3 May 2014
The view from the cheap seats
Tickets start from £18 but be warned, when they say these are restricted view, they mean it. Right at the front of the stage, you’ll be unable to see any of the action on the heavily used upper portion of the stage