Church Hill Theatre, Edinburgh – until 11 Feb 2017
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Accomplished musicality and some excellent dancing distinguish Edinburgh University Footlights’ Urinetown at the Church Hill. However, it is at the service of a damp satire that never truly ignites. The 2001 musical by Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis takes sideswipes at politics and Broadway, in a story about a dystopian future where environmental catastrophe has led to the outlawing of private toilets, with all facilities controlled by the Urine Good Company.
Despite that unwelcoming title and an apparent desire to undermine the cliches of musical theatre, this is not nearly as nasty as it might appear. Comparisons with Brecht and Weill are well wide of the mark, with any political satire being ill-thought out and toothless, and the inner core of sentimentality that often lies behind the apparently cynical very much on display. The tunes lack distinction, while the plot is confused and derivative; we are constantly told that this is the point, but that is no real excuse.
The attacks aimed at musical theatre, moreover, are essentially soft-hearted, as they really have to be – why would anyone who truly dislikes the form go to see this? Familiarity with Les Miserables, Fiddler On The Roof and the other shows being parodied also adds considerably to the fun.
And there is fun here, although it is inconsistent. Much of the humour comes from self-referential asides about plots of musicals and comedy double-takes. The supposedly clever bits are not nearly as effective as they would like to be; the more basic business works better, but takes time to warm up. Overall, it is all a little apologetic and lacking in gusto, with the result being sporadic titters rather than full-throated belly laughs.
Nitai Levi (rebel leader Bobby) can be exempted from any such criticism. He is a confident comic presence, and his tunefulness and physicality light up the stage. His duet with Eleanor Crowe (his other-side-of-the-tracks love interest Hope) on Follow Your Heart is a highlight – she also displays excellent timing as well as vocal power.
Jonny Ross-Tatam is suitably conniving and strutting as Hope’s father, the UGC’s evil owner Caldwell B. Cladwell – but since the part is such a caricature, it could benefit from an even bigger performance. The same could be said of Sarah Couper as Penelope Pennywise, the toilet attendant with a secret. When we are constantly told what a joke it all is, underplaying makes little sense.
Couper is not the only performer who seems much happier singing than speaking. Douglas Stephenson (Officer Lockstock) has a wonderful voice, but is ill at ease dispensing the self-mocking narration. Rachael Beaty is more at home as the other narrator figure Little Sally. Fraser Mycroft, Andrew Hay, Adam Makepeace and Josephine Strong make the most of smaller roles, while any time Lewis McDonald ventures snarling from the chorus is a particular treat.
The whole production works best when it is closest to traditional musical theatre. The first half of Act Two has virtually no plot, but features a sequence of numbers ‘inspired’ by various genres from the chorus which are the production’s highpoint. The gospel-tinged Run, Freedom, Run displays a particularly finely tuned sense of the ridiculous.
Sarah Lamb’s choreography, which is strong throughout, is particularly well discharged at these points. Especially noteworthy is the way complicated dance moves are performed while singing – something that does however lead to words being somewhat swallowed at other times.
The safety in numbers provided by the ensemble does lead to some much bigger performances than is too often the case in a much more diffident first act. Director Madeleine Flint seems to want to find more light and shade, and more psychological realism, than the source can stand. There is the odd Brechtian touch, such as the way the cast are deployed before curtain up, but like much of the rest, it seems too half-hearted.
When it is big, bold, brassy (and not a little stupid), backed by MD Steven Segaud’s expansive band, it all works so much better.