Yeast Nation ★★★

Yeast Nation is certainly an unusual musical at Southwark Playhouse – but does it rise to the occasion?

It’s not as if there’s a lack of stage musicals with strange topics as inspiration. A bunch of trains, a controversial American talk show host, a web-slinging superhero and a big whale to name a few. So it doesn’t come as too much of a surprise that the rather eccentric minds behind (the Tony award-winning) Urinetown have created this ‘unexpected’ musical.

If you thought Southwark Playhouse’s recent show, Anyone Can Whistle, was a bit wacky, Yeast Nation are no doubt asking someone to hold their pint. Yeast Nation – The Triumph of Life, wait for it,  centres around a salt-eating yeast colony in the primordial soup a mere 3 and a half billion years ago. Each member of the colony is called Jan. Of course they are. But there is dissension in the yeast ranks. Salt supplies are in increasingly short supply. While Jan the Elder is content with the status quo, his son Jan the Second Eldest is ready to rise to the surface – and fall in love. 

You are plunged into the primordial chaos immediately by having the auditorium lighting preset so dark, it’s a challenge find your seats. Three sides of seating surround the stage area which consists of six bean bags and a couple of moveable stands. Who would expect the sea bed at the start of time to be lavish? Fortunately any reservations are soon dispelled with the arrival of….The Yeasts!

All photos by Claire Bilyard

The sheer enthusiasm of the cast of eight performers immediately draws you in to this bizarre, absurdist, hilarious Precambrian world. It isn’t long until you see past the lycra and bath sponge outfits and get to know the inner yeast. (A sentence I never thought I would write in a review). Whether it is their Northern accents, their adorable floaty movement (devised by Lucie Pankhurst) or their occasional Pythonesque non-verbal exclamations, you find yourself caring about this bacterial microcosm.

Mari McGinlay

Mari McGinlay is outstanding as the scheming, second-in-line to the throne Jan the Sly. Camply unhinged in her lust for power, like a yeasty Liz Truss, she squeezes every giddy laugh out of her boo-hiss villainy and devours her irresistible Act 1 number, Little Sister. Who knew that the burgeoning romance between two single-cell beings would deliver so much heart but Stephen Lewis-Johnston and Hannah Nuttall sell a convincing if strange love story and give Yeast Nation its emotional core. Nuttall’s vocals balance power and purity while Lewis-Johnston has a stunning lower register and a charismatic stage presence. What is particularly commendable is that both of these performers and the wonderful Sarah Slimani, as the show’s witty, post-modern (or should that be post-ancient) narrator, Jan the Unnamed, are all making their professional stage debuts. In a show about the beginning of everything, The Recs can see this being the start of shining theatre futures for all three. 

Stephen Lewis-Johnston
Hannah Nuttall
Sarah Slimani

Although there is not one weak link in the terrific cast, who deservedly early a standing ovation, ultimately there are two main drawbacks with Yeast Nation which, like much of evolution, are interconnected.

The show has some great songs. Love Equals Pain is like a great 80s pop song with some soulful trimmings. You Don’t Know a Thing About Love is such a sweet sentimental song despite the realisation you are watching a puppet sing a duet. The songs are mostly big belters and the cast give them their all. Yeast Nation writers Hollmann and Kotis are certainly not shy of a crescendo. The trouble is after the umteenth number of fortissimo, full-throated big finish, the score becomes bombastic and a bit wearying.  To use a yeast-based product analogy, you might fancy a cup or two of Kombucha but you wouldn’t want to drink an urn of the stuff. 

The second issue is the length. Currently running at 2 hours 20, it far outstays its welcome. Apart from the development of the Act 1 story twist, there is little in the second Act that you haven’t seen or heard already. Unfortunately director Benji Sperring has dialled everything up to eleven exactly when nuance would be most welcome. It’s theatre with caps-lock on. 

Some judicious cuts and allowing the cast (and musical accompaniment) to take their foot off the throttle occasionally might let it flourish into a fun, quirky leftfield show. Yeast Nation would always be a bit of a Marmite proposition but, despite the performers’ best efforts, it currently remains stuck in the mud. 

Yeast Nation remains stuck on  ( three stars) from The Recs despite a praise-worthy cast. 

Yeast Nation Tickets

Yeast Nation - The Triumph of Life runs at Southwark Playhouse until 27 August 2022

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