Musicals from The Producers to Monty Python’s Spamalot and The Book of Mormon have long capitalised on sending up the genre they exist within, cross-referencing other musicals by way of elaborate in-jokes. But although we’re only finally seeing it in London now, Urinetown - which was first seen at the New York International Fringe Festival in 1999 before transferring to Off-Broadway and then Broadway in 2001 - got there way ahead of the curve, with a show that constantly and conspicuously comments on itself throughout.
Richard Fleeshman and Rosanna Hyland in Urinetown the Musical, St James Theatre, London Photo: Johan Persson
Officer Lockstock, who represents the authoritarian rule of law, and his sidekick Little Sally are the spokespersons and narrators for that effort, with Sally at one point stating: “I don’t think too many people are going to come and see this musical.” To which Lockstock replies: “Why do you say that, Little Sally? Don’t you think people want to be told that their way of life is unsustainable?”
That sums up both the method and message of a show that playfully engages with an apocalyptic view of a future where even basic human needs such as urinating are regulated and profited from by a corporation.
That gives Urinetown a recognisable foundation in reality, and its Broadway opening, just nine days after 9/11, was to give audiences a jolting reminder of our precariousness and how no rights can be taken for granted. A musical about an imagined future had turned out to be eerily prescient, not least as corporate corruption has been serially exposed, from the Enron scandal that followed the very next month, to the global banking crisis.
It may be powerfully political, but the secret behind the success of Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’ Brechtian-flavoured musical is its robust air of subversive fun. That is keenly caught in director Jamie Lloyd’s spirited production, even if the huge scale of Soutra Gilmour’s daunting two-level set sometimes threatens to overpower the small St James Theatre. But while the downstairs studio has become established as a cabaret favourite, the main house has a corporate atmosphere, so it’s a neat subversion to find this critique of corporate power playing there.
A stunning cast seizes its comic and vocal opportunities with alacrity. Jonathan Slinger - a stalwart of the Royal Shakespeare Company for which he has played Hamlet, Prospero and Richard III - is insinuating and creepy as he makes a powerful musical theatre debut as Officer Lockstock, while Simon Paisley Day - another classical theatre veteran - is malevolence itself as Caldwell B Cladwell, who runs the corporation with a rod of iron.
Richard Fleeshman as Bobby Strong, leading the civil opposition to Cladwell’s efforts to increase toilet charges, and Jenna Russell, as Strong’s boss, bring muscular and musical grace respectively to a show that is a witty, thought-provoking delight. After the successes here of Tell Me On a Sunday and Putting it Together, the St James is finally coming into its own as an ideal location for musicals with a difference.