Jack Peat reviews Urinetown and a new wave of dystopia created by the conflict of human rights and resource management.
Science and economic observers of India have been confronted by some puzzling statistics of late. Despite certain areas of the country enjoying sustained economic growth there are still vast numbers of children who are malnourished and stunted leaving them with mental and physical deficits typical of deprived, food-scarce regions. On closer examination it was found that a lack of food wasn’t the problem, but poor sanitation.
India has fallen foul to the prophesies of Thomas Robert Malthus who calculated that if man needs food and the passion between the sexes is necessary, then the power of population is infinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsidence for man. The cramped urban dwellings of India’s shantytowns are precisely the people-rich/ resource-scarce places he was referring to, but the lack of sanitation is proving to be the biggest test of earth’s ability to house such large numbers of people. Heavily populated villages are without toilets and thus people defecate outdoors exposing children to a bacterial brew that leaves them unable to attain a healthy body weight no matter how much food they eat. But whose responsibility is it to provide an alternative, and if it falls into the hands of corporations, should they be allowed to charge for delivering on basic human rights?
That question forms the basic premise of Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’s Urinetown which has moved to The Apollo in the West End after a successful stint on Broadway. The play is at the cusp of a new wave of dystopia led by environmentalists concerned about resource scarceness as well as being inextricably linked (as dystopian works usually are) to the role of companies and the government in managing the earth’s resources. The show highlights the evolutionary and adaptable nature of dystopia and its ability to draw attention to the big issues of the time by glancing into the future and outlining the consequences of inaction in the present. But unlike Franz Kafka’s The Trial or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four that are primarily works of fiction, Urinetown is made for the stage and is ready to tamper with the parameters of theatrical productions to deliver its prophetic visions.
So first to that horrendous name. Urinetown isn’t a place. In fact, it isn’t anything. It’s not real. It’s a word used to keep the masses under control and as narrator ‘Officer Lockstock’ (played by Jonathan Slinger) informs us at the start, it is the reason no one dares pee in anything but private urinals controlled by Urine Good Company, the unforgiving corporation that controls the town’s water resources. Along with Little Sally (played by the star of the show Karis Jack) Officer Lockstock plays an intertwining role as narrator and police officer ensuring UGC’s chief Caldwell B. Cladwell’s (Simon Paisley Day in a hilarious Basil Fawlty-esque role) pockets are being lined with public money.
But things turn nasty when Cladwell’s daughter Hope (Rosanna Hyland) falls for hero Bobby Strong (Matthew Seadon-Young) and inspires him to start a revolution against UGC, gaining public momentum by allowing them to ‘pee for free’. What ensues is a mix of on-stage hilarity, some brilliant musical numbers and superb audience interaction. There’s a real Monty Python feel to the show which means the many humorous elements fit seamlessly into the narrative. However this does cause issues when the slapstick elements intertwine with the dystopian parts. Even when you see characters being thrown from buildings – blood spill and all – you still expect a giggle at the end. There’s also the feeling that toilet etiquette is a bit stretched as the basis of an uprising. As Simon Edge said, “satire about paying to pee isn’t worth spending a penny for” and The London Evening Standard’s Fiona Mountford added that Urinetown is essentially a “Tony Award-winning musical about loos”.
But overall I found it to be a rather enjoyable show. The challenging nature of dystopia – that strange mix of realism and syndicalism, prophecies and fantasies, action caused by inaction, emotionally charged words and their antonyms – are all covered well and it does a good job at combining these elements with music and comedy. You do come away with some mixed messages and it’s certainly not one to dwell on for too long, but at the end of the day you pay your admission to be entertained, and that’s precisely what Urinetown does.