I recently attended a talk by the theatre critic Libby Purves, who admitted that it’s difficult to critique musical theatre productions, because “they just do so much”. This is a statement I wholeheartedly agree with, and one which kept running through my mind during Shotgun’s production of the musical Urinetown. Despite certain hallmarks of an amateur production – largely relating to limitations posed by the venue, stage, and equipment – Urinetown comes across as a colourful explosion of work, creativity and talent. It is a synthesis of drama, dance, costume, set, singing, and music – as the onstage band and ever-present figure of the conductor (Ryan Mulgrew) never let the audience forget.
It is undeniable that Urinetown has a strange premise: supposedly set in a not-too-distant future, the musical depicts a world where people must pay in order to use toilets – a rather drastic measure designed to combat a water shortage. As the owner and regulator of the public amenities, Mr Cladwell (George Protts), profits from his urination business, the young Bobby Strong (Sam Webber) decides to lead an uprising against it. Throw in the character of Hope Cladwell (Rhiannon Whale), daughter of Mr Cladwell and love interest of Bobby, and the outline of the musical becomes fairly clear.
However, while the title of the show somewhat prepares an audience for its odd and unsettling subject matter, the unorthodox structure is entirely unexpected. Strangely, the musical is narrated by two secondary characters, whose dialogue is laden with irony and consistently breaks the fourth wall. At first, this comes across as rather jarring, but, gradually, I came to regard the interjections of Officer Lockstock (Freddie Walker) and Little Sally (Liv Buckley) as a truly enjoyable and unique aspect of the show.
Something else which is particularly characteristic of the musical, is the fact that it never takes itself too seriously. I don’t believe that there is a single member of the cast who doesn’t receive a laugh from one of the many one-liners, or some of the clever physical comedy. Urinetown is full of clichés and stereotypes, but it doesn’t just employ them – it delights in them. Personally, one of my favourite moments must be the parody of the Les Mis barricade at the end of Act 1: evidently, Urinetown knows that it does not have the gravitas and sincerity of such a classic musical, but the absurdity of the comparison is used to its full comedic potential. Of course, there are moments when the level of cliché borders on unbearable – but, as this is a defining theme which runs consistently throughout the musical, the audience just shrugs, and accepts the absurdity as an integral part of Urinetown.
The lead performers are all convincing actors, and it is nice to see that many of the secondary characters have unique and clearly-defined personalities. The pairings of Bobby and Hope (Whale and Webber), and Lockstock and Sally (Walker and Buckley) work particularly well together, and George Protts should also be praised for his portrayal of Mr Cladwell. While the vocals aren’t always perfect, the harmonies are complex and add an exciting element to the show.
Overall, Urinetown is weird and wonderful, intensely political yet hilariously funny. It’s clear to me, both from watching the performance on its opening night and speaking to people involved, that a great deal of hard work, love, and joy has gone into the production. In the words of Libby Purves, they have indeed done “so much”.
Urinetown continues to be performed at Kay House Duryard on the 4th-5th December.