Review: Yeast Nation – The Triumph of Life, Southwark Playhouse

A musical that is truly unique for better or worse, Yeast Nation – The Triumph of Life is certainly an experience at Southwark Playhouse

“I will partake of the muck”

Those noted sages of our times Girls Aloud once told us that you can’t mistake your biology but the writers of Urinetown Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis would have us believe that there’s more to science that we previously knew, specifically yeast. This UK premiere of Yeast Nation – The Triumph of Life arrives with clear designs of achieving cult status. And after opening this week to highly divisive reviews and losing one of its cast to tonsilitis, it is building up quite the requisite backstory.

As for the show itself, a programme note lays claim to being “part Greek tragedy, part Shakespearean court drama, part bio-historical sci-fi” and the website goes for “part classic Greek drama, part bio-historical comedy musical, part bizarre fever dream”. Either way, there’s not quite enough cheek for that amount of tongue given the clumsy storytelling that emerges from the primordial slime dressed in unitards, utility belts and poufs of tulle. 

We’re at the bottom of the sea (as demonstrated by the beanbags of Diego Pitarch’s design) and it is 3,000,458,000 BC. Even though they’re the first lifeform, they’re keeping busy. There’s Yeasts that want to kill the king, Yeasts that want to move away from home, Yeasts who want to befriend new species – oh and they’re all called Jan, and have Yorkshire accents. If that wasn’t enough, they sing a suite of over-amplified rock songs that sit somewhere between Jim Steinman and the 1989 Eurovision Song Contest (Belgium won with ‘Stasis in the Membrane’ in case you forgot…).

It’s a lot. Especially if you’re subject to the audience interaction (avoid aisle seats and front row if you’re not keen). And little of it makes sense, which is either wacky or wearing depending on how you’re doing with the show. I struggled with the first act to be honest, and the flourish with which it finishes is either the best or worst thing I’ve ever seen (as yet undecided). But then…but then…the enthusiasm of the young girl next to me – particularly well cultivated by Chris Howell’s interactions I should add – began to win me over, the Yeast Nation began to grow on me…  

Benji Sperring’s production for Proud Haddock committed to hiring 50% graduates for the show and its a bold move that goes a long way as the enthusiasm of the ensemble is a large part of selling this, in particular Hannah Nuttall’s work as Jan the Sweet suggests a bright future. And the slightly more experienced hands of Shane Convery and Mari McGinlay revel in their dastardly characters. As it is though, the show just needs too much work, you can’t rely on the purity of a child’s laugh to win over every cynical audience member.  

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Claire Bilyard
Yeast Nation – The Triumph of Life is booking at Southwark Playhouse until 27th August

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