The Toxic Avenger
2nd October 2017
Hits don´t come more smash than this. After a sensational run at Southwark Playhouse and then a sold out success at the Edinburgh Fringe, Katy Lipson for Aria Entertainment together with Derek Nicol and Paul Walden for Flying Entertainment bring their magnificent production of this luridly fantastic, gloriously delightful show into the West End, and – to judge from last night´s instant standing ovation – this is where it will be staying for some time to come. Currently setting out on a 10-week residency, tickets are likely to shift very quickly, so whatever you do do not delay in purchasing yours.
For those of you unfamiliar with the ´superhero´genre, some brief plot details may be necessary. Based on B-movie maestro, Lloyd Kaufman´s sensationalist Troma Studios flick of the same name, we are in super-ordinary Tromaville, New Jersey, dumping ground for all the toxic waste from Manhattan, whose glittering towers are seen in the background of takis´s economically brilliant design. Victim of the ´Town Bullies´(the first of many incarnations of the multi-role-playing Oscar Conlon-Morrey and Che Francis), super-wimp Melvin (divine Mark Anderson) is thrown into a vat of chemical goo, whence he emerges – transfigured – as a bright green, thickly muscled, hideously disfigured (but also priapically enhanced) monster, cheerfully known as ‘Toxie'. Seeking a ‘role' for himself in the world, as those transformed into monsters invariably do, he wages a war of revenge against the ‘normal' world that damaged him: two of the first casualties are, of course, the bullies, messily disemboweled and torn limb from limb, before being decapitated. And so it goes, until, necessarily, the sweet voice of literally blind innocence (Emma Salvo's deliciously inept librarian, Sarah) calms his rage and turns him towards a life of meaningful wrong-righting and do-gooding. This incurs the wrath of the implaccable Mayor (Natalie Hope, doubling sensationally as Mervin-Toxie's mum), who wages war against both him and Sarah, until the inevitable showdown. Along the way, we get a clutch of wonderfully imagined characters from Conlon-Morrey and Francis, as well as a few surprise appearances from the wings, meta-involvement of the backstage crew (ostensibly Peter Bindloss and Sophia Lewis) deployed to devastatingly comic effect, all thanks to Joe Di Pietro´s inspired book and the nail-on-the-head direction by the ever-rising star of the directing firmament, Benji Sperring.
Please, people, for those of you determined to seek for deep truths and vitally important social critique in musical comedies (of ALL places!, I ask you?), this is entirely meant for fun. Have we all got that? I sincerely hope so, because there is enough ghastliness happening in the world outside without some depressing voices insisting that we expunge from our theatres any vision of a world where good does in fact triumph over evil, where songs are sung regularly (here to the tunes and lyrics of Bon Jovie´s David Bryan), where there is snappy choreography (here by Lucie Pankhurst, on top form, working wonders with just a handful in the cast – assisted by Paul Sanders), and gorgeous lighting (by Nick Farman), and deep, resonant sound (by Andrew Johnson) making the absolute most of Musical Director Alex Beetschen's flashily expanded band (who are, in addition to Beetschen on keys: Tom Coppin, guitar; Jack Reddick, reeds; Sam Pegg, electric bass; Bob Carr, drums).
The book is funny and irreverent, poking fun at most of the institutions and beliefs honoured by society at large, but the songs are pure rock'n'roll, with title after title setting the foot tapping and the body gently swaying in time to their infectious rhythms. Whether that be through the Mayor's outrageous ‘Jersey Girl' or Toxie's exquisitely rendered ‘Thank God She's Blind', one way or another this score is going to find where you live and seduce you with its charms. It's a show I've seen three times now, and its allure is undimmed by repeated exposure. How many new shows can one say that about? Exactly. This is a magnificent new addition to London´s capital and long may it remain so. I would not be surprised if it moves to a larger theatre. There isn´t a duff element in this supremely accomplished and well-judged realisation of an exceedingly well-written piece.
Having worked the open thrust space of the Southwark Playhouse, Sperring – and takis hand-in-hand – have worked the look and nature of the show to fit the proscenium, end-on playing arrangement of the Arts, and the results are seen to their greatest effect in the second half, where the bond with the audience is at its strongest. There have been some welcome liberties taken with the script, too, and Di Pietro himself has been on-hand to sanction some crafty re-writes. Who knows? When people have seen how effective they are, there might well be more. In the meantime, there´s enough to enjoy here to merit the price of the ticket. So, go on, you deserve it. Indulge yourself!