Putting the Pee in Privilege

This review contains spoilers of the show, so I’m going to get the synopsis/value judgement bits out of the way first.

Urinetown is set in a dystopian world ravaged by global drought. Due to the water scarcity, the government has outlawed personal toilets, and citizens must pay for public facilities. These bathrooms are controlled by – cue groans – Urine Good Company, a corrupt corporation hiking up toilet taxes for employee trips to Rio (which is inexplicably not affected by drought?). If you get caught peeing in the street, you get sent to ‘Urinetown’, a mysterious hellhole from which you’ll never return. The optimistic Bobby (Jye Cannon), a conflicted UGC employee, and Hope (Nat Montalto), the daughter of its CEO, stage a revolution to give back the people’s civil liberties… with messy results.

UMMTA’s latest offering, helmed by Bradley Dylan, is a very well executed student production, to the point where I find it hard to fault it technically. The cast imbrue the show with plenty of energy, and performances are strong across the board. Tabitha Lee is a clear standout as the precocious Little Sally – think Helena Bonham Carter and Ellen Page’s lovechild – and Henry Shaw commands the stage as the villainous corporate head Caldwell. Likewise, the band attains a killer sound for just four people. The (many, many) costumes and set pieces are of a high quality, and scene transitions are handled competently. The choreography is generally tight and at times jaw-dropping. Alex Brindle handles the radio mics with deftness and precision and Talfryn Dawlings’ lighting design is as gorgeous as it is dramatically clever.

Tickets are selling very well, and I’m not surprised. It’s a very clever musical – and I’ve no doubt that those who are musical theatre fans will find a lot to enjoy. If it sounds like your thing, go along.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. Spoilers begin now.

Urinetown dramatises knowingly problematic content. It begins as a potent (but on-the-nose) political allegory for unchecked capitalism curtailing citizens’ civil rights. In our current political climate, I was immediately thinking of the deprivation of such liberties as sanitation in the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres. A particularly eerie line “I want to make our city great again!” presages the rise of Trump and right-wing authoritarianism.

And suddenly, it’s tearing down its own metaphors. Having set up that it is a “privilege to pee”, Bobby and Hope emerge as the show’s protagonists. Both are white and able; both work for UGC. They not only have the privilege to pee, but the privilege to have hope. They speak in hackneyed clichés: “Follow your heart”; “The sky is a heart, look to the sky”; “I dream of a world where…”; “Freedom for the people!”. For the longest time, Urinetown plays like Les Misérables had a one-night stand with The Day My Bum Went Psycho and neither stuck around to raise the kid.

Indeed, the show mercilessly skewers the one-dimensional dreamers. Bobby is taken to Urinetown – that is, thrown off a roof – and when Hope finally leads her uprising and releases water for all, the water soon dries up and everyone dies, the end. “This is not a happy story,” the narrator tells us at the start, and she’s not kidding. Its “razor-sharp satire” subverts the tropes of the musical comedy into an angry message of ecological destruction.

In this way, Urinetown belongs to that odd species, the postmodern musical comedy, that walks a razor’s edge between delivering the naturalistic style of “good ol’ fashioned fun” and a knowing self-awareness. You might have seen it in Spamalot, whereby the knights realise they’re in a Broadway musical by the end of the show. Here, though, it’s overtly political. This drawing attention to its own artifice, which theorists have called ‘Ironic Detachment’, has a precedent in Brecht’s concept of Verfremdungseffekt, variously translated as the alienation/distancing/estrangement effect. The audience is kept at bay by dramaturgical mechanisms, thereby engaging with a work more consciously and intellectually. Throughout the show, I was consistently irked that the actors’ performances were too exaggerated and directed out towards the audience and not to each other, resulting in weak relationships between the characters. But that’s the point of Brechtian distance – they’re archetypes, and we’re supposed to read them as such.

So does it work? To be honest, I’m not quite sure.

Dylan and his company utilise many effective distancing procedures. The costumes strongly invoke The Hunger Games’ aesthetic, staging a visual rupture between garish Capitol couture and the torn, dirty garments of poverty-stricken masses; this visual reference kept me aware of its artifice. The audience is greeted by giggling UGC jesters, aligning us as privileged spectators of injustice. Certain jokes – such as when the ensemble momentarily breaks from their frozen tableau into jazz hands every time the narrator says ‘Musical’ – are repeated so often they get tired, further putting us out of the action.

Nevertheless, I don’t feel the company quite achieved the level of political satire required of such an enterprise, and perhaps this was because it did not go far enough in drawing out the audience’s discomfort. I was left, by the end, with an emptiness and confusion rather than a commitment to ecological sustainability. But I have a feeling that if this wasn’t “the point”, then the show’s problems are built into its text and structure.

For me, Urinetown’s political message hinges on its audience not caring about its characters. Bobby and Hope’s romance is deliberately undercooked; the revolutionaries turn into a mob with a thirst for killing; Little Sally’s certainty that “You wouldn’t give a small child so many lines if it didn’t have a happy ending!” is metaphorically urinated upon. And all to make way for a message about unsustainable living. I just don’t understand what’s gained by pitting civil liberties against ecological sustainability. I get that there’s good and bad in everyone but by the end of the show I was left feeling guilty for finding it so entertaining and lost because I did not know what it wanted me to do.

Ultimately, Urinetown is a deft and more importantly audacious foray into a dark, thorny show with sophisticated dramatic mode. For those of the opinion that musicals are apolitical fluff pieces, it’s definitely worth a watch.

Kim Ho

UMMTA’s Urinetown is on in the Union Theatre from May 20th – 28th. 

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