first night

Urinetown

Lucy Knight considers DULOG's latest production a welcome relief from second-term stress.

Hollmann and Kotis’ Urinetown: The Musical is set in a town gripped by a twenty-year drought that has wiped out private toilets, leaving the desperate masses with no other choice than to pay extortionate tariffs to an evil corporation in order to use the public bogs. The musical takes both the literal and metaphorical piss out of musical theatre, and the Director of DULOG’s production, Charlie Keable, along with his talented cast and creative team, took on this intertextual parody with aplomb – complete with jars of ‘urine’ adorning the Assembly Rooms’ steps as the audience walked into the theatre.

On entering the auditorium, we were immediately transported into ludicrous dystopia:  toilet roll was strewn across the seats, cast members lurked eerily as they begged for money, and the centrepiece of the set – a large and somewhat vaginal toilet seat – loomed over the stage, just in case we were in any doubt about the theme of this production. The creative team had clearly worked hard to create versatile staging to minimise clunky set changes. The apron had been lowered and an extra level had been built at the back of the stage, which allowed the action to take place in different locations without having to change the set. The changes in scene and atmosphere were marked instead by lighting and costume choices, with green ‘urine’-coloured lighting and drab clothing for the townsfolk, contrasted by the reds and blacks of both the costumes and the lighting of the ‘baddies’. I was impressed by the attention to detail that had been paid, for the stage had been completely painted to look like grey brick streets sprinkled with urine, and newspapers had been stuck to the walls – the result was stylish and effective. Interestingly, the creative team had chosen to have the band ‘heard and not seen’ behind flats at the back of the stage. This meant that the music sounded a bit distant and ever so slightly muffled, although they were never in danger of overpowering the singers, even when there were some issues with the sound and Sophie Allen, who played Hope Cladwell, had to sing without a microphone.

The score of this particular musical is a rather bizarre one, since it is constantly mimicking other musicals, yet Musical Director Becca Rickwood has done a fantastic job working with both the band and the ensemble to create some wonderful moments. The harmonies in particular sounded excellent, and the cast seemed to grow in confidence throughout the performance, by the end blowing us away with a magnificent wall of sound. Choreographer Rosie Dart also took on the challenge of a diverse score competently, and the dance routines had clearly been thought through so as to add to the style and the humour of each moment. The ensemble, whilst all capable performers, sometimes could have brought more energy to both their singing and dancing – whether this was due to first night nerves or a short rehearsal process, a small amount of sharpening up could have made some of the routines spellbinding. All in all, however, the entire cast were incredibly talented, and facial expressions and physicality were sustained throughout, even when entering and exiting the stage.

The standout performance was, for me, Andrew Shires’ gloriously evil portrayal of the villainous Caldwell B. Cladwell. His gruff voice and hilarious physicality had me in stitches, and his exchanges with Lily Edwards, playing Penelope Pennywise, were particularly funny. The pair are both talented comic actors and they bounced off each other beautifully. Shires occasionally lost some of his hold over the audience during longer sections of song, for his singing is not as strong as his acting. Yet this barely detracted from my enjoyment of his character, since his all-round performance was exceptional. Jasper Millard, playing the so-called ‘hero’ Bobby Strong, is also worthy of a mention: he often made me laugh through his physicality without saying anything at all, and his prophet-like rendition of ‘Run, Freedom, Run!’ was sensational. I also particularly enjoyed the exchanges between the narrator, Officer Lockstock, played by Joe McWilliam, and Little Sally, played by Louise Webster. It was here that we saw the most overt mockery of musical theatre tropes, and McWilliam’s deadpan delivery was very amusing, although occasionally he was a little too understated, and it was difficult for the audience to hear him. Webster offered an ingenuous source of hope and optimism, a pleasing counterbalance to McWilliam, and she was especially brilliant in some of her more sassy moments, for example in the line: ‘When a little girl has been given as many lines as I have, there’s still hope for dreams’, offering a humorous dig at gender roles within the world of theatre, which was perhaps particularly relevant in the light of the recent passing of International Women’s Day.

Keable and his team have done an excellent job with this production – the parodic humour was brought out to its fullest extent, and even in the short rehearsal time available to them, the talented and hilarious cast managed to give a truly entertaining performance, which can only improve as the nights go on. And now, since I’ve largely avoided puns throughout this review, I’ll leave you with this: if you don’t go and see Urinetown, urine idiot.

10 March 2017

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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