The Toxic Avenger review at Southwark Playhouse, London – ‘a madcap treat’

A scene from The Toxic Avenger at Southwark Playhouse. Photo: Claire Bilyard
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In the 1980s New Jersey came in for a bad rap over the cleanliness of its shoreline but it turned out that Manhattan’s waste being dumped in the Hudson was to blame. The surrounding eco-political backlash prompted film director Lloyd Kaufman to create The Toxic Avenger. It’s this campy, violent B-movie that provides the inspiration for Joe DiPietro and David Bryan’s musical, combining a love of schlock science fiction, rock anthems and their home state.

The Memphis writers have pitched their material somewhere between Little Shop of Horrors and The Rocky Horror Show. There’s a reverence for the source material but also a strong musical narrative. Throw in some meta-comedy, plenty of contemporary humour and the result is a madcap treat.

Aria Entertainment’s production invests heavily the design and it pays off. Mike Lees’ ingenious composite set consists of towering vats of ominously glowing waste beneath a familiar Manhattan skyline. Jonathan Moriarty North’s prosthetics are complemented by Nic Farman’s dramatic lighting and the often heavy rock score is well balanced by Andrew Johnson’s sound design.

A tireless cast of five double like crazy to populate the town of Tromaville, but this kind of quick-change comedy actually fuels the drama. It also allows Lizzii Hills as Mayor and Ma Ferd to raise the roof with the Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore duet. Benji Sperring’s enthusiastic direction establishes the tone and pace from the outset, though there are a few moments where the humour wears a little thin. Thankfully these are mostly outweighed by a jubilant score, energetic performances and a green message delivered with its tongue firmly in its cheek.

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Full-throttle rock musical comedy that's slickly designed and big on laughs