Theatre

This is Urinetown: we talk political satire and dark comedy with Bobby Strong and Penelope Pennywise

Urinetown is that rare breed of musical that gets fabulous reviews but suffers in the custom stakes, which, once you’ve taken the trip down to Urinetown and revelled in it’s dank, deliciously dark and outrageously irreverent take on classic musical theatre, seems absurd.

It’s a show that isn’t afraid to make a fool of itself and to tackle political intrigue and alternative comedy head on. It’s a tale of political corruption set in a dystopian future where people are forced to pay to pee under the control of maniacal, money-hungry Urine Good Company boss Caldwell B. Cladwell (Simon Paisley Day). It’s also a story of unlikely love that sees green around the gills toilet attendant Bobby Strong (Matthew Seadon-Young) – who happens to fall in love with Cladwell’s daughter, Hope (Rosanna Hyland) – emerge as an unlikely rebel leader in the fight for the common folk to pee freely.

It’s also a phenomenally clever show that doesn’t just break the fourth wall, it destroys it, as Jenna Russell, who is a comedic and dramatic tour de force as toilet tyrant and one-time strumpet Penelope Pennywise, explained:

“It’s almost 12 years old now and we forget that without Urinetown we wouldn’t have The Producers, there wouldn’t be Book of Mormon; it started a trend of those kind of ironic, self-aware, breaking the fourth wall tropes. Urinetown was the first mainstream show to do that…and it’s now become part of a Broadway language.”

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I slithered down the theatrical drain to discover what, according to two of the show’s lead actors, Matthew Seadon-Young and Jenna Russell, makes Urinetown such a different West End and Broadway beast, or why, as Seadon-Young claims:

“It’s twisted, it’s dark, it’s hilarious and you should not be put off by the title”

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Matthew Seadon-Young – Bobby Strong

After venturing backstage at the Apollo Theatre into Bobby Strong’s dressing room, I discovered Seadon-Young fresh from a pre-show nap and lounging on a spotty dressing gown. After a cup of tea and taking a perch next to one of the show’s many pots of fake blood, the strapping Seadon-Young was happy to talk political gripes, dream musical roles and what it was like stepping into THAT tight T-shirt.

Describe the magic of Urinetown

Urinetown is a very dark, satirical, hilarious show that is based around a lot of social themes that are relevant to today’s climates, like corporate greed and even police brutality, but on top of that there’s a brilliant, very witty pastiche on musical theatre in general.

What do you think makes your character, Bobby Strong such a good part to play?

He’s got a real journey. There’s a sort of naivety to him so he doesn’t really see what’s coming…he’s really earnest I think. It’s always interesting to play that, but consciously, because the piece is so heightened; it’s quite tricky to heighten earnest-ness. He’s got some wicked songs and on top of this nice guy image there’s a bit of meat there. He’s funny and charismatic; it’s an amazing part to play…but it’s exhausting!

Do you see yourself in him?

Aside from the fact that I wear glasses myself, yes I do, there’s always a part of me that I will try to bring to a character. I think the main thing is I’m always questioning things and he’s always questioning the morals of characters and I find myself doing that. He’s the one that fuels and sparks the revolution in the show. He knows there’s something wrong with this world that they live in and the government and he can’t quite put his finger on it.

Do you think there’s something wrong with the government in real life?

Yes! Well this is what’s so great about the show, there’re so many political nods in it. Things like the corporate greed and selling the NHS off. There’re lots of political issues that people are aware of that this show highlights. The number one one being that, obviously, we pay to pee now!

Was it intimidating stepping into Richard Fleeshman’s shoes who played Bobby before Urinetown transferred to the West End…and did you bulk up for that tight t-shirt?

He’d stretched it out a bit yeah! No I’d always been a bit gym-savvy before I started Urinetown. I wouldn’t say intimidating. As soon as Richard found out he sent me a few messages and was really supportive. I always knew I was going to do something very different with the role – I’m not taking anything away from what Richard did; he was amazing, I  loved Richard – I just went into rehearsals again and stripped him back down and built him up again so he was always my Bobby, not my interpretation of Richard’s Bobby.

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What’s it like working with Jenna (Pennywise)?

Oh brilliant, she’s a pro. She’s so funny; very, very kind and generous with her acting, which is great. She’s one of those actors that you can really feed off. She’s definitely someone that you look up to and someone that inspires you.

What would your ideal musical role be?

I would love, when I’m a bit older, to play Georges Seurat in Sunday in the Park with George. Actually any leading man in any Sondheim role and I’d be happy.

What’s it like working with Urinetown director Jamie Lloyd again?

He’s such a force of nature. Due to the heightened nature of the piece as an actor you have to feel comfortable taking really big risks in the room so you really put yourself on the line and he makes you feel so comfortable.

What do you think the worst thing you’d have to pay for in a dystopian future?

I would have to say music. It’s the thing that everyone in the world has in common. If for any reason in a dystopian future we couldn’t play musical instruments or sit down and write together and make music, that would be devastating.

What’s on your West End hitlist?

Memphis. My friend Killian Donnelly is in it and I’m desperate to watch him. I’ve got Assassins on my list at the moment because my older brother is in it at the moment and he’s amazing.

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Jenna Russell – Penelope Pennywise

I met the indomitable Pennywise, or Jenna Russell as she’s known outside of the overalls and the smear of red lipstick in the gold and silk-walled recess behind the stage of Urinetown and, with the cast’s warm up music seeping through the connecting door, she told me why fortune favours the brave when it comes to her character in this dark comedy.

Describe Urinetown for people who haven’t seen it.

Once you’ve seen the show it couldn’t be called anything other than Urinetown, but some people can’t get past the name. Ultimately it’s a story of love, of revolution, of corrupt power, or people’s struggle against the big man…but it’s really funny. It tackles those issues with great humour, irony and self-awareness that totally includes the audience.

Urinetown has had such great reviews, why do you think it isn’t a sell-out?

In New York, you get a good review from the New York Times and you’re kind of guaranteed an audience. Over here we don’t have that structure so you get great reviews but if people go “oooh the title”, which I don’t understand I don’t know if they think they’re going to see people urinating on stage, which doesn’t happen!

I’ve done a lot of Sondheims and with those shows the houses aren’t full every night. It’s a discerning audience that comes out to see these kind of shows, which I appreciate because I know the people that are out there get it and have come for a different experience rather than just to be sat down and washed over; they’ve come for something to be engaged with.

Actually, I’ve noticed that no one swears in Urinetown and, on balance, it’s quite a clean musical

It’s tame! It’s a family show, although I wouldn’t bring kids because there’s blood… But even that’s done with a twinkle.

What attracted you to the part of Pennywise?

It’s a great part, although on paper it isn’t that interesting bizarrely. I love the show and I wanted to work with Jamie again. We worked on Guys and Dolls and we’ve been talking about working together and it just so happened that when I finished Merrily We Roll Along there was a month off between the two jobs and it was just perfect.

You played Pennywise at the St James’ Theatre before Urinetown’s West End transfer, is Matthew Seadon-Young’s Bobby Strong very different to Richard Fleeshman’s?

The character is the character but they both play it differently. Matt’s gone down a more comedic route, which works beautifully. Matt’s great, so confident and funny and still gets all the spills and shocks and you believe the love story. But of course we still miss Fleeshman because he originated the role and brought Bobby to life in our first production. It will be like me in a few weeks when I leave and Julie Jupp [who is currently playing Bobby’s mother, Josephine Strong] will play Pennywise.

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I think I noticed an extra chest tap with Matt, whose chest do you like tapping more? Richard’s or Matt’s?

An extra chest tap? Possibly! They’re both lovely. They’re all lovely! All the boy’s chests that I tap are all perfectly lovely.

Do you ever find yourself still talking in Pennywise’s voice even after the costume has come off?

Oh I do it all the time. But she’s great fun to play obviously, she’s a revelation. I’m usually quite a quiet actress I think, I err on the side of invisible sometimes in terms of how I play things. For an actor it’s great to be that over the top, because we don’t ever get to be that over the top; even to the point of, if you aren’t in your light, to make an issue of finding your light…or someone else’s.

I read that you and Simon Paisley Day, who plays the evil Caldwell B. Cladwell, are great friends in real life. Did you struggle with the, ahem, romantic scenes?

We’ve never worked together before but we live round the corner from each other and we’ve known each other for about 15 years. He went to Bristol Old Vic with my other half and I’m godparent to his eldest daughter.

I’m really used to it now but in rehearsals I couldn’t quite cope with it. I laughed awful lot. Thank goodness we don’t have too much together. The bit where we sing our duet, I don’t think we managed it until we were in front of an audience, we just laughed too much.

Cladwell’s advice to his daughter Hope is don’t be the bunny. What’s your advice to Hope from Pennywise?

Follow your heart! She’s of the same mind that Hope is.

What would be the worst thing in a dystopian future that you would be forced to pay for on a daily basis?

Cuddles! That would be awful. I think I cuddle a lot of people. On a daily basis I think that would be my biggest expenditure.

Don’t miss out on getting your tickets to Urinetown. The show is running at the Apollo Theatre until 10 January and Jenna Russell will be leaving the role of Penelope Pennywise on 29 November to perform in Di and Viv and Rose at the Vaudeville Theatre.

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