The Toxic Avenger
Arts Theatre, London

The Toxic Avenger review of the UK premiere of cult musical at the Southwark

Our critics rating: 
Wednesday, 27 April, 2016
Review by: 

Musicals with a message about global warming may be thin on the ground, but this sharp and well-presented musical manages to satirically deliver its sermon in a frivolously entertaining way. The Southwark Playhouse continues its reputation for serving up UK premières of off-Broadway curiosity pieces that would otherwise not get a professional London outing. Similar in tone to the venue's recent revival of 'Bat Boy' and their première of 'Xanadu', the campy, tongue in cheek elements make for a fun night out, but thanks to a highly accomplished cast it pushes the top end of its glass ceiling.

Writers Joe DiPietro and David Bryan whose work was last seen at the Shaftesbury Theatre with the Tony Award-winning Memphis have crafted a serviceable score that musicalises all the appropriate moments and drives a heavy rock beat for the impressive vocal decorations to sit atop. None of the melodies may be particularly ear-worming, and it's not a score that maintains multiple listens, but it serves both the comedy and the narrative and in this production is competently realised.

Based on Michael Herz and Lloyd Kaufman's 1984 cult film of the same name, it follows a familiar superhero narrative of small-town geek turned muscle man, struggling to simultaneously 'get the girl' whilst also saving the city. The basic formula may be familiar, but the components feel less so, with the muscle man becoming a toxic freak, the girl an Oprah obsessed blind librarian and the biggest threat to the city coming in the form of a greedy Mayor with a habit for dumping nuclear waste.

Structurally the show doesn't survive the two-act format it's forced to live with at the Southwark. The actors work tirelessly to build momentum and get the audience on their side, and the interval breaks this chain and makes them work overtime to get that momentum back in a show that's not structured to withhold such a break.

There's a rough-around-the-edges charm to the production values that suit the nature of the musical as a whole, with a fun design using glowing radioactive waste and bold colours to reference the show's 80s cult classic roots. The sound design, which is usually a headache for most musicals in this venue, is top-notch, and it's rare to be able to hear every word in this space, although at times the lyrics do leave a lot to be desired.

What elevates this production is the fiercely talented ensemble cast who not only display phenomenal vocals but get behind the material with enough chutzpah that you really can't fail to be impressed by their efforts. All but two of the five multi-role throughout the performance with enough energy to keep you firmly on your feet, morphing through various costumes, accents and props into a multi-character ensemble that even includes one actor duetting with herself rather remarkably.

Hannah Grover delights as blind librarian Sarah, milking her affliction to the maximum comic effect, whilst showing off an incredible belt and a dead-panned sincerity to match. Mark Anderson as 'Toxie' gets to utilise his powerful and vigorous vocals, working hard underneath a slightly disappointing prosthetic to give his character humanity.

It's left to Marc Pickering and Ashley Samuels however to steal the show, working overtime in a diverse set of ensemble characters that stretch them both vocally and physically and offer a full range of comic potential. Together they fuel and instigate the madness, getting the audience on their side and helping to maintain a consistent tone that invites you to be apart of the mayhem rather than be turned off by it.

Yes, some jokes wear thin and others are lost in translation, but they're delivered with utter commitment and just the right level of knowing that the show just about stays on the right side of the tracks. The concept would resonate more with an off-Broadway audience for whom mocking the Garden State of New Jersey is a constant source of amusement, but director Benji Sperring works hard to make it meaningful this side of the Atlantic. Leave your brain at the door, don't ask too many questions and you'll enjoy the ride.


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