Yeast Nation is the bonkers new comedy musical from Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann, makers of hit musical Urinetown. We go back in time to 3.56 billion years ago where, in the primordial soup, a colony of salt-eating yeast cells navigate a new era – a changing in the tide.
The story follows a family of yeast cells living in a rule-based, hierarchical society. It’s a complex satire that, akin to a Shakespearean comedy, is a tale of deception and power. Important social and political commentary lies under the witty dialogue. Much like Urinetown, there is a strong climate-awareness thread: ‘If only I’d put the brakes on our excesses a thousand years ago…’ It’s a pertinent point, leaving the question, is this play about pre-human or post-human existence?
A hilarious script by Kotis is complemented by the gorgeously layered and almost operatic score from Hollmann (arranged by Michael Webborn). The writing is tongue-in-cheek and at times quite silly but always lots of fun, whilst the show is delightfully knowing, referring to itself and the absurdity of what’s happening throughout. There’s a playful nod to the period it’s set in, with the dialogue a charming combination of Shakespearean language and contemporary Northern. Parts of the narrative are rather predictable and formulaic however, particularly the main love story. The prowess of the writing really lies in the quip-filled song lyrics.
Benji Sperring‘s direction is visually striking but often confusing. Two worlds are created, the one with Jan the Unnamed (Sarah Slimani) a successful device for maintaining the writer’s message and also the relationship between action and audience – something that works especially well in this production. The clarity of exactly where the narrative is rooted (the physical place and the time within the arc of the story) could improve. This comes from slightly blurry definitions and inconsistent rules. It is, however, consistently funny and it’s honestly hard to imagine talking yeast cells not having Northern accents after watching Sperring’s production.
There is so much potential for the physical comedy to be as funny as the words are, but an unsure movement language prevents this. It isn’t 100% committed and it isn’t consistent through the course of the show. A setting this wacky needs a concrete decision on what the actors are physically doing in order for audience to understand: this doesn’t happen.
Saying that, it is performed very well, with all of the cast utilising bold characterisations to comic effect. The relatively young cast are all extremely strong singers and moments of harmonious magic occur in the larger, more choral numbers. The comedy is occasionally forced and actors aren’t always connecting with each other enough to transport the audience to the emotional states that their characters are in. Slimani’s portrayal of Jan the Unnamed is, though, a joyous highlight. She cheekily breaks the fourth wall and holds the theatre with her bold and loveable stage presence.
A creative and standout element, the design is essential to the production. Completely integrated into the action and at times the star of the show, Diego Pitarch‘s costuming is jovial but still wouldn’t look out of place on a fashion runway. Pitarch also designed the set, which is functional but maintains the colour palette and aesthetic of the production.
A funny and very watchable musical, Yeast Nation is a success. It’s fun and beautifully sung but a few elements aren’t quite understandable or necessary to the communication of the story.
Music and Lyrics by Mark Hollmann
Book and Lyrics by Greg Kotis
Directed by Benji Sperring
Musical Direction and Arrangements by Michael Webborn
Set and Costume design by Diego Pitarch
Lighting by Nic Farman
Sound Design by Adam Fisher
Produced by Proud Haddock Productions and Benji Sperring Productions in association with Steph Hartland
Yeast Nation plays at Southwark Playhouse until 27 August. Further information and bookings can be found here.