Hats off to Phoenix Players not only for taking on this show, always difficult to get right, but for doing so in an inventive production making unconventional but effective use of the Stanley Halls venue. With the band on the stage and the action moving from there to a long traverse stage in the hall and a very well-used balcony above, cast and audience are in close contact throughout. If sight-lines suffer slightly, particularly when extended periods of action takes place on the stage, this is compensated for by the proximity of the action.
Urinetown (by Hollman and Kotis) has, perhaps paradoxically, some very lyrical sections, and the use of traditional musical theatre routines for such a sombre subject is one of the recurring themes of the piece. As Little Sally says, “the music’s so happy.” Any group taking on Urinetown needs to be able to deliver the musicality but also, crucially, to understand and put over the appropriately ironic and knowing tone, not to mention the metatheatrical comments from Longstock. It is a real strength of this production, directed by Lauren Walker and Joanna Walker, that these twin targets are both achieved.
The five-piece band under MD Mark Smith is tight and enjoyable, and the cast contains some strong singers. The well-rehearsed choreography by Joanna Walker and Debbie Williams is appropriately stylised and stereotypical and plays nicely against the bleak subject matter; the police dance is particularly impressive. With no set to speak of, good lighting is crucial and it mostly delivers, although it is clearly more difficult to light cast members at the hall rather than stage end of the traverse; but emerging from the shadows seems appropriate for Urinetown anyway.
The ensemble are well used and costume throughout is impressive (Lauren Walker, Lucy Frankelby and the cast), it being clear that some of the cast has thought carefully about what they would be wearing. Hard-working throughout, the ensemble are a very important part of this show and most filled the bill, although there are a few times when lines are shrieked at such volume that they became inaudible. The opening number of Act 2 also seemed to have indulged the ensemble too much, although they very much win us back with the well-delivered gospel-influenced number that follows. Occasional crackling from mics and slow response to cues to turn these on will probably all be corrected by now.
Among the cast, those who caught the eye include the entertainingly camp trio running UGC (camp, camper and campest?) with Matt Dolman as a nervous minion, Shaun Smith impossible to miss in tight red trousers and an orange kipper tie and Wes Hudson as an energetic and amusing Cladwell. As what passes for the hero in this piece, Joseph Hartropp both looks the part and inhabits the role truthfully all the way to his inevitable demise.
Nicole English gives a thoughtful and detailed performance as Little Sally, and there are no weak links at all among rest of the large cast. Perhaps the two most impressive performances, however, are the beautifully sung and heartfelt Hope of Eleanor Strutt (especially in Follow Your Heart) and the wonderfully sardonic and confident Tommy Deeks as Lockstock, grabbing the audience from his first entrance and carefully setting the tone for the whole show, making it clear that he owns the stage: as he says, “no-one can touch me if they want the show to end.”
Urinetown is not often performed but offers some interesting challenges for an inventive and talented group. Phoenix Players are more than up to these challenges and deserve full houses for the rest of the run.