Urinetown is a show that gleefully takes the piss -- in every sense -- out of musicals, while also scoring serious points about corporate America's desire to control and capitalise on our every activity, even including our bodily functions. Yes, if there's an economic opportunity available, Big Business will find it.
Musicals, too, of course, have long become a big corporate business, too, but this one subverts the form by having two of its characters constantly observing the action and commenting on it. Officer Lockstock is its narrator as well as the state's chief enforcer, with his sidekick Sally saying to him at one point, "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?"
By turns earnest and cynical, satirical and hysterically funny, Urinetown is a subversive delight as it engages in an apocalyptic view of the future where water shortages have forced everyone to use public toilets that we have to pay for. Of course, there's nothing new in that -- Greg Kotis, who wrote the book and co-wrote the lyrics with composer Mark Hollmann, has said the idea came to him back in 1995 when he was on a backpacking tour of Europe, and after running out of money almost immediately found himself in Paris, "walking by the Luxembourg Gardens trying to measure how badly I needed to go to the bathroom, and trying to decide whether to use one of the pay-per-use facilities they have there or wait the few hours until just before dinner when I could combine two trips into one."
His show, too, happily combines two trips into one, as it simultaneously offers this Brechtian-inspired tale of economic and ecological hardship in which the public eventually fight back with a satire of musicals themselves. There's nothing new with the latter either -- other "metamusicals" from The Producers and Monty Python's Spamalot to The Book of Mormon have us well used to the technique of sending up the genre. But Urinetown actually got there first, opening first in the New York International Fringe Festival in 1999 before transferring to Off-Broadway and then Broadway in 2001.
So we've had to wait a long time for this one to arrive here, but it has been worth the wait. It has also been ahead of the curve in exposing corporate scandals, from Enron that followed the very month after it first opened on Broadway to the global banking crisis that suggested lots of people were taking the piss in more sinister ways, not just charging for it.
In New York, too, it was staged in deliberately down-at-heel surroundings, both off and on Broadway. But the St James Theatre, which has a much more corporate feeling, gives it a more classy home to make us shift more uncomfortably in our (not too) comfortable seats. In what is unquestionably the biggest production yet to play at this Victoria address since it opened just over a year ago, a huge cast give it their all.
Director Jamie Lloyd -- who is currently represented in the West End by The Commitments and is soon to announce a return season at Trafalgar Studios for his own production company -- is fast turning into a one-man theatrical factory, and he brings a punchy and visceral attack to every moment of this show, superbly served by a company that includes RSC veteran Jonathan Slinger as Officer Lockstock, Simon Paisley Day, Richard Fleeshman and Jenna Russell.
"The show keeps springing surprises to the end, and rigorously eschews the sentimental happy ending the cunning story line seems to be promising. Indeed the off-putting title strikes me as the only serious misjudgement of this darkly entertaining and exceptionally sharp show."
Charles Spencer for The Telegraph
"It’s impossible to deny the originality of this crowd-pleaser, and if you like your musicals bold and a bit Brechtian then – to make the sort of obvious pun that the show itself savours – urine for a treat..."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"It's not every day that you find a US musical that attacks corporate greed, rampant exploitation and unsustainable lifestyles – and, while it's not flawless, it has a welcome satirical bounce."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"This relentlessly overdone, underlit, shouty, puerile show is more on the level of an undergraduate revue. Its political slant is confused (the conclusions flood into the last five minutes in a mad jumble of comeuppances) and the visuals are sub-Batman."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail