Southwark Playhouse is home to the oldest musical in the world at the moment. Not literally obviously, but Yeast Nation: The Triumph of Life is set about 3 and a half billion years ago, which was slightly before Les Miserables opened in the West End.
Billed as a bio-historical musical from the writers of Urinetown, Yeast Nation is set in the brine of the primordial soup and tells the story of the original colony of Yeast as they work to secure their future amongst a power struggle… and a whole lot of weirdness, to tell the truth.
If you think Yeast Nation sounds like an odd show, that’s because it is. Written by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann. I’m not sure I could explain with confidence what was actually occurring on stage. Hard to follow at times and completely nonsensical, its enjoyment lies in the absurdity of it. Sometimes you just need to throw your hands up and escape into the absurd, and that’s what Yeast Nation has in spades. Never taking itself too seriously, its dialogue contains some funny one-liners and some great sight gags.
A stronger element to the production are the songs. Well crafted and pleasant to listen to, they are of a consistently high quality with highlights including early act one number ‘I’ll Change The World Around Her’ and ’Doom! Love! Doom!’. Though you may leave struggling to remember any of the songs, they are definitely fit for their purpose.
What we really need to celebrate about Yeast Nation are its fantastic cast. West End favourite Chistopher Howell is on fine form as Jan the Eldest, treading the balance of having fun with the role while not playing it like a panto perfectly. With his phenomenal singing voice and comedic timing, he is sensational in the role, clearly having fun playing it.
An absolute standout goes to Stephen Lewis Johnston as the eldest son (and therefore his favourite), Jan the second Eldest. Impressively making his professional debut, he is utterly captivating in the role and with a beautiful singing voice to boot. Other highlights among the fantastic cast include Shane Convery as Jan The Wise and Mari McGinlay as Jan The Sly.
The performance I went to had understudy Shani Erez go on for Jan The Unnamed with minimal prep time. Script in hand, this led to a couple of improvised lines which were among the funniest of the evening, and was another example of how valuable swings and understudies are. A refreshing mix of seasoned performers and recent graduates was very welcome, with the cast of eight showing the future of theatre is in safe hands.
Directed by Benji Sperring and with movement from Lucie Pankhurst. the cast paraded around the stage and the audience to hilarious effect but were perhaps let down by an underwhelming stage design with nothing but a few beanbags littered across it. While it is not the be all and end all when it comes to shows, when compared to the intricate design from the show playing the smaller space in the Playhouse (bearing in mind I saw both on the same day) it really did feel like a missed opportunity to effectively create an atmospheric setting.
Yeast Nation is one of those shows where I really didn’t know how to feel. I definitely enjoyed myself, mainly thanks to the fantastic performances from a truly talented cast. I did laugh at a few of the lines and the songs were good enough, but honestly it was all a bit of a mess. Not everything landed the way they should have and it all felt a little underwhelming. A contender for the weirdest show of the year, this isn't a bad show by any means but more could be done to make all the elements fit together consistently. Sadly not a triumph but still a fun night out in itself.
Yeast Nation: The Triumph Of Life plays at Southwark Playhouse until August 27th. Tickets from southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/the-large/yeast-nation
Photos by Claire Bilyard