Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Review: 'Toxic Avenger The Musical' at the Arts Theatre, 2nd October 2017

Toxic Avenger the Musical reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Ah Troma, my old friend. For a kid growing up in the 90s Troma Studios films were like crack: gross-out bonkers B-movies with a loveable punky aesthetic. Get hold of one of these videotapes and you felt like you were doing something illicit. I adored their trash classics, having particular soft spots for Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD, Rabid Grannies, The Class of Nuke 'Em High and, my favourite, Tromeo and Juliet (in which Juliet is accidentally transformed into a hideous cow monster with a three-foot penis).

But you can't talk Troma without talking Toxie. First introduced in 1984's The Toxic Avenger, this environmentally conscious mutant superhero parody gave Troma a rare bona fide hit, launching a film franchise, a children's cartoon series (I had a Toxic Avenger action figure that palled around with my Ninja Turtles) and, in 2008, a stage musical written by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan (Bon Jovi's keyboardist).

Now Toxic Avenger The Musical has opened at the Arts Theatre, hot off for last year's production at the Southwark Playhouse, and it's pretty damn great. Hewing pretty closely to the original movie, we meet the twisted inhabitants of Tromaville, New Jersey, where glowing nuclear waste oozes from pipes, the tap water is flammable and the fish are deformed monstrosities. Dorky wimp Melvin (Mark Anderson) and his crush, blind librarian Sarah (Emma Salvo) scratch out a living in his nightmare. In an effort to impress Sarah, Melvin decides to fight the town's pollution, threatening to expose the Mayor's (Natalie Hope) corruption. Instead, she pays some hired goons to dunk him in mutagenic goo, but rather than kill him it merely transforms him into... The Toxic Avenger!

What follows is appropriately Troma-y descent into bad taste, full of gags that dare you to be offended, cranked-up sexuality, ludicrously broad stereotypes and Itchy and Scratchy-esque violence. As the director's note in the programme explains, the West End is a very safe place full of shows that, hoping to appeal to the widest possible audience, are desperate not to offend or challenge. The consequence is bland, safe sludgy theatre loaded with saccharine morals.

Toxic Avenger the Musical certainly isn't that. For example, there's a constant rain of jokes at the expense of a blind character that had me guiltily laughing. That air of 'should I be laughing at this' continues throughout the show - landing pretty much at same tone as the average episode of South Park. But this show gets away with it, partially because it's always 'punching up'.

Troma itself is an underdog movie studio and Toxie is an underdog superhero. The musical runs with this baton, painting itself as an underdog musical and repeatedly contrasting itself against its glossy West End neighbours. It trips itself up a little by being so musically, performatively and aesthetically solid, but by and large, the show still feels like a scrappy, homegrown passion project with a gleefully twisted sensibility. It is after all, rare to see a West End show in which the moral conclusion is that we should decapitate polluting industrialists, not to mention one in which a man's intestines are played like a guitar.

Anyway, it's easy to like a show with such a toe-tapping soundtrack - it's always a good sign when you can't get the songs out of your head the next day. Bryan's Bon Jovi heritage shines through in most of the numbers, ranging from 80s inspired hair metal to demented power ballads, all incredibly dense with lyrical gags. 

The energetic cast also excels. Highlights are Natalie Hope's ultraslutty mayor, forever ready to tear her dress upon in a display of weaponised sexuality, Emma Salvo's hilarious commitment to stage blindness and impressive set of pipes, and the double act of Che Francis and Oscar Conlon-Morrey in a variety of supporting roles. But it's Mark Anderson's Toxie that'll stick in my mind - a winning combo of charisma and costume that perfectly brings the character to life.

By now you can probably tell that I enjoyed the hell out of this show. I often feel out of step when it comes to musical theatre - when other critics praise absolute guff like Braille Legacy or Titanic: The Musical (not a parody) I end up scratching my head - but this is my kinda night out. All hail Troma! All hail Toxie! May Toxic Avenger the Musical play long and loud!

Toxic Avenger the Musical is at the Arts Theatre until 3rd December.

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