Yeast Nation: The Triumph of Life at Southwark Playhouse – review
The European premiere from the creators of Urinetown runs until 27 August
Much like that most famous of Yeast derived products, this is a show that is getting a real Marmite level of love or hate reaction. There is certainly no question that it is honestly the most ludicrous premise for a musical, quite possibly ever – so why could I not help but sit with a wry smile from start to finish and a foot that couldn't quite stop itself from tapping?
Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis – writers of the 2001 surprise Broadway hit, Urinetown – have taken us back to the beginning of all things. The humble Yeast, some 3,560,000,000 years ago are all aimlessly swimming about in a state of stasis in the primordial soup. Despite their single cell status, they are a surprisingly civilised bunch that live in an ordered society – albeit one that is ruled by a despot King by right of him being the first-ever Yeast.
Much like the anti-establishment sentiment of Urinetown, it isn't long before some of the younger Yeasts begin to see the light – quite literally, in the form of glo-sticks attached to their chests – and begin to ‘rise up' against their dictatorial leader. If the order of the evening wasn't already weird enough, all of the Yeasts are called Jan – Jan the Wise, Jan the Sweet, Jan the Sly, and so it goes on.
There is no cleverness to the story and it is all about as predictable as a loaf of bread – there's a love interest, a sycophantic advisor to the King, a villainous power grabber and a strapping young hero to save the day. The King has a Scrooge-like affirmation and finally allows his Yeast children to escape the confines of the deepest parts of the ocean in order to learn, grow and become multi-cell organisms that will ultimately begin life itself. The first lifeforms – well, second if you include the Yeasts – are preposterously simulated with multiple fluorescent pink glove puppets. It's an absurdly fitting moment considering the entire company are wafting around in green lycra bodysuits with green netting pom-poms attached.
Amongst all this insanity is a clear message, of course. It's not just about the struggle for freedom from suppression but also about the consequences of overindulgence. In justifying his suppression of the Yeasts, the King fears that "eons of feasting and propagating would lead to mass overpopulation" – it's a rare moment of clarity in an otherwise nonsensically messy narrative though.
Hollman's score is punchy and vibrant and is given a thumping outing by, what appears from the programme, to be just a two-piece hidden band. Director Benji Sperring treats the material with great earnestness which means that, despite the absurdity, there are actually very few laughs to be had. Where Sperring and the team at Southwark have succeeded magnificently is in their commitment to ensuring that at least 50% of the company are graduates fresh from drama school – done in order to help the theatre industry evolve and grow following the pandemic. This is not only commendable but has reaped massive rewards with some real standout performances.
Stephen Lewis-Johnston and Hannah Nuttall are particularly enthralling and have seriously good voices that belt out Hollman's rock and pop score magnificently. They are superbly engaging as the pair of Yeasts that fall hard for one another and I hope to see much more of both.
Mari McGinlay is suitably duplicitous and in fine bluesy voice as Jan the Sly whilst Shane Convery brings a wonderfully snivelling Jan the Wise to life. Christopher Howell brings a touch of experience to proceedings and clearly enjoys giving some big vocals an outing as the deposed King.
The material may be daft but it would be hard to find a group of performers more committed to a piece than these youngsters, and that in itself makes the evening a worthwhile experience. The message may be lost in the absurdity of it all and, despite the closing words, I think it unlikely that bio-historical musical theatre will really save mankind. Oh, and for the record, I've always rather liked Marmite!