Yeast Nation: The Triumph of Life Review

Southwark Playhouse – until 27 August 2022

Reviewed by Alun Hood


It has taken 27 years for this highly eccentric musical comedy from Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, the team behind the Tony Award-winning Urinetown, to reach London. According to a programme note, it has played all over the US, as well as Germany and Mexico, and “at every step of the way, the show became clearer and stronger.” Quite frankly, the mind boggles at what those earlier versions must have been like then, as it’s barely comprehensible now, despite the valiant efforts of a magnificent cast in Benji Sperring’s boisterous staging.

Set in the primordial soup in the year 3,000,458,000 BC, all the characters are yeast (they’re all called variations on the name Jan – “Jan the Wise”, “Jan the Sly”, “Jan the Wretched” and so on – presumably because they all originated from the same organism) and the story is a sort of quest, as one of the Jan’s breaks with conformity and defies the iron rule of their leader, Jan the Eldest, to explore other possibilities of existence, away from the murky bottom of the ocean. Oh, and they fall in love with another rebellious Jan. It’s all utterly bonkers and, to it’s credit, doesn’t take itself at all seriously.

The problem is though, is that it’s just not all that funny either. Lacking the wit of other cultish musicals, such as Little Shop of Horrors, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and indeed this same team’s Urinetown, Yeast Nation seems content to be a one-joke curiosity that might have worked for forty five minutes or so, but starts to feel desperately overstretched as a full length show, clocking in at two and a half hours.

Despite the creator’s aspirations to Shakespearean and Greek tragedy (and the perfomers do speak in a sort of heightened sub-classical language that adds to the overall other-worldliness of the whole thing), it just isn’t possible to have any emotional investment in characters that are prehistoric single-celled organisms. Also. the storytelling is far from clear, a problem compounded by Adam Fisher’s unsubtle sound design which renders more than fifty percent of lyrics and dialogue unintelligible.

Musically, it’s quite impressive, with some thunderous, minor-key anthems and ballads giving way to a couple of real earworms. Song titles such as “Stasis is the Membrane” (a bit of a banger, incidentally) and “You’re Not the Yeast You Used to Be” give a clue to the jokiness of the whole thing, although it’s hard to tell if the lyrics are any good or not, as it’s virtually impossible to hear them. There is however a second act showstopper called “Love Is Pain” that achieves a gleeful, poppy symbiosis between joy and cynicism, and if the rest of the score and production could achieve that same level of exhilaration and clarity, then Yeast Nation would be something to savour.

What is certainly something to celebrate is the talent of the company. Got up in dark-hued body stockings with dozens of taffeta rosettes attached, and looking like an unholy alliance of ballerinas, sci-fi creatures and the cast of Cats (costumes by Diego Pitarch), they sell the bizarre material with verve, commitment and stunningly good voices. Stephen Lewis-Johnston exudes authentic young leading man energy as the rebellious Jan the Second Eldest, and Hannah Nuttall is just wonderful opposite him as the appropriately named Jan the Sweet.

Christopher Howell brings thrilling vocals and an almost classical intensity to the yeast king losing his grip, and Mari McGinlay is great fun as his scheming daughter. Shane Convery’s fabulously camp, equally duplicitous Jan the Wise spins comedy gold out of thin material, and James Gulliford, Marisa Harris and Sarah Slimani are terrifically energetic and winning as an assortment of other Jans.

The Jans all move with a sort of undulating gait (movement direction is by Lucie Pankhurst) and have specific, repeated physical reactions that are almost human, but not quite. These details add up to a convincing impression of the whole thing taking place in a different element, namely the primordial murk (Nic Farman’s lighting is appropriately dark for the most part), although there was some inconsistency in the movement, at least on the night I attended.

I love an off-the-wall musical, but the self-conscious weirdness and frustrating lack of genuine wit or clarity ultimately defeated me here. Despite the superb cast and a couple of fun moments of genuine theatrical invention, I found myself too often just wondering why anybody thought this show was worth doing and who it is aimed at, apart from obsessive collectors of musical curiosities with a morbidly masochistic streak. Having said that, the friend I went with absolutely loved it. A deeply strange evening.