The Toxic Avenger is a musical that just about eats itself, as well as the audience, as it voraciously grabs every possibility for madness and silliness. And all to a deafening soundtrack of jolly music. It is anchored by two complete star turns and it will offer all but the most churlish as good a time in the musical theatre as they would get at The Book Of Mormon and largely for the same anarchic, surprising reasons. It solidly reminds that comedy is is an equal partner in Musical Comedy; even if, as here, the broadness of the comedy dulls rather than sharpens the appeal.
When this production of The Toxic Avenger played its first season at the Southwark Playhouse, it was an unrestrained triumph. This version, amended and recast, has had great success out of London and now is playing in the West End at the Arts Theatre.
It is as unmissable as The Girl From The North Country, Ink or The Ferryman, albeit for different reasons. Musicals as uniquely rich as this come not very often. It’s no 42nd Street or An American In Paris, but it shares a sensibility with the outrageous antics of Matilda and The Book Of Mormon.
Much attention appears to have been paid to making the production bigger and better for the West End. Largely, this is a wasted effort. For my money, the original cast was stronger than the current cast, across the board, and there were real charms about the occasional make-do feel to the original Southwark Playhouse outing. For instance, the eccentric eye of Toxie originally looked like it might fall off at any moment; the current version is sturdier, but somehow not as appealing.
This might sound like a small point, and indeed it is, but it is true of the whole as well as the parts. The ingenious sincerity and spontaneity that Benji Spurring ensured imbued every aspect of the original production is now polished into a frenzy of overeager, quite aggressive assurance. Some of the playing, music and acting, assumes its place in the audience’s affections without necessarily earning it. Bigger is not always better, even on the West End.
This is a production that seems ripe for Fringe venues more than a West End stage which is, perhaps, testament to where this production has been rethought and restated. Inbuilt now is a sense of exultant triumph. The original production seemed more honest, more grounded, more willing to earn its place, rather than loudly assume it, in the affections of its audience. And, critically, the cast then displayed more heart.
This is all a question of degree, nothing more. If you like your pleasures high octane and driven, then The Toxic Avenger is for you. If you prefer to enjoy something brilliant emerge from something that seems unlikely or uncertain, then you will like, but probably not love, this version of The Toxic Avenger.
One thing that is consistent is the staggeringly good performance given by Mark Anderson in the dual role of Super Geek Melvin and unlikely pensioner killer Toxie, a green, monstrous powerhouse created accidentally by nuclear waste. Anderson is faultless, and he mines both characters with skill and nuance, landing laughs and ensuring sympathy throughout. It’s a measured, manic performance capped by Anderson’s bright and powerful tenor voice.
As his blind co-star, Emma Salvo makes a delicious Sarah. She has a splendid voice which makes for easy listening and she handles the tunes here effortlessly. Her acting is sensitive and spirited, and she proves electric as a physical performer of great comic complexity. When she unlocks Sarah’s carnal desires, you can feel the quivers of anticipation as if they were zephyrs wafting by.
Together, Anderson and Salvo are a true force on the stage and this production is never better than when they are sharing scenes or songs. They work beautifully together and make the most of every opportunity without substituting the scenery for their dinner.
Whereas, in the case of the other three cast members, Natalie Hope, Ché Francis and Oscar Conlon-Morrey, overacting and undiluted extremity are the foundation stones of their every moment. You can see why. These three performers play a myriad of characters and can easily all but steal the show, as the actors who originally played these roles showed in this production. But they worked hard to make their mark through characters that were extreme but relatable; this trio start at uber-excessive and shift gear upwards.
The result is funny enough, but not nearly as funny as unexpected funny. When parts are played at full-throttle and with a wink and a nod to the camp excesses that abound, the humour is earthed and ultimately exhilarating. When there is unrelenting buffoonery and a slight arrogance about the shtick, the humour is in free-fall and ultimately engulfing. A bit like the Catwoman of Julie Newmar and that of Eartha Kitt in the 60s Batman series: they both worked, but Newmar worked because she was a surprise; Kitt worked as expected.
This is not to discount the contribution of the supporting trio here, but it is important to discern the difference the performance styles creates. This trio expect big laughs and does anything to get them; they sacrifice character for laughs. Both Anderson and Salvo, however, get their laughs as a result of their carefully thought through performances and the relationships they create in character.
It is a key difference though and it slightly unbalanced the production. In the end, some jokes are lost in the wash of cheap laughs and that is a true pity. Hope’s manic Mayor is not differentiated sufficiently from her manic Ma Ferd and the same really can be said of all of the characters played by Francis and Conlon- Morrey. The three can all sing, dance and act but, ultimately, there is not the discipline that there might have been.
Alex Beetschen’s small but spirited band plays with great skill, but is often far louder than is needed, a problem which Andrew Johnson’s sound design ought to overcome. Nic Farman’s lighting is excellent and makes the most of takis’ effective stage design. Lucie Pankhurst provides suitably zany movement and choreography which is not always performed with the kind of detail and discipline from which it would benefit.
If this gives the impression I didn’t like this incarnation of The Toxic Avenger that is not the case. But I did not have as good a time as I did with the original company of this production and I felt frustrated because of that. This cast should have been able to replicate, even improve on, that success. It’s surprising that they didn’t.