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Review: YEAST NATION THE TRIUMPH OF LIFE, Southwark Playhouse

Review: YEAST NATION THE TRIUMPH OF LIFE, Southwark Playhouse

Musical comedy from award-winning writers fails to evolve into hit show


Yeast Nation The Triumph Of Life is not the most enticing title to lure a punter into the stalls on a summer's evening, but Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman have form - after all, they won a couple of Tonys with Urinetown The Musical.

So avoiding the temptation to scratch the itch of complaining about the forced quirkiness already front and centre, we sit in Southwark Playhouse's main theatre and hope the show will rise from its somewhat unprepossessing playbill.

Half a dozen or so beanbags that look like they were bought from Ikea earlier in the afternoon are littered about the stage and what looks like a traffic cop's podium is the only other element of a set. And then the cast arrive and the horrendous thought dawns that they are going to have to wear these green lycra bodysuits festooned with pom-poms for the full two hours plus running time - even Pan's People (whom they resemble) only had three minutes under the heat of the lights. Surely Equity would have stepped in were the temperature at last week's levels?

The band, behind a curtain to... err, avoid spoiling the realism, drive a rock beat from the get-go and the yeast (for our green people are such) sing. And they often sing very well, Sarah Slimani the outstanding voice as our narrator. Many of the actors are recent graduates, a laudable casting decision by Proud Haddock, recognising that these are unique times and that drama schools have not been able to operate anything like normally since Covid struck. Theatre needs to support its young talent as never before.

For some reason the yeasts (our Kermitish humanoids) speak in Yorkshire accents of varying degrees of accuracy. As usual, a Northern working class accent, even in 2022, guarantees a few gratuitous laughs at a London venue, but I don't think that was the primary purpose - though it's hard to discern another.

Christopher Howell's martinet king is soon giving us vibes of Lear and his son, Stephen Lewis-Johnston, a touch of Hamlet or Macbeth as he rejects the strictures that prohibit swimming out of the depths of the primordial soup and eats life-enhancing muck. There's a political/environmental message cum satire here about ageing rulers clamping down on the excesses they enjoyed in their youth and on the perils of excessive consumption, but it's a little lost in the loud music, the slapstick and meta-commentary.

And the beat goes on! One longs for a change of pace or tone in the score, but that really only comes with a few rare moments of self-reflection at the start of the second act - otherwise it's power ballads the whole way, Mark Hollman channeling Jim Steinman at his most Jim Steinmanish.

There's a pair of sweet star-crossed lovers and a fine turn as a baddie by Shane Convery in a pair of Jacob Rees-Mogg glasses, but also irritating fourth wall breaches that provoke a sharp and unwelcome memory of the set pieces at the end of The Two Ronnies that I just couldn't shake. And quite why movement director, Lucie Pankhurst, has the yeasts doing that floaty spinny thing with arms and legs long after we've established where we are, I do not know - it induces a little sea-sickness after an hour or so of watching.

Director, Benji Sperring, has made a bold choice in giving a UK premiere to this marmitey show (some in the audience on press night - never the most reliable barometer - loved it) but the production feels out of place in this house. Maybe the rough and ready look, the chummy asides and the in-jokes would work in a more intimate venue, but it just looks like a show that needs much more development as it stands. Given that it's already 15 years old (and set 3.5 billion years ago) that seems unlikely to happen any time in the next millennium or so.

Yeast Nation The Triumph Of Life is at Southwark Playhouse until 27 August

Photo Credit: Claire Bilyard


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