The Southwark Playhouse is celebrated as a venue for little known, undiscovered, and brand new musicals. The Toxic Avenger is simply the latest in a long line of hits – and a bloody good laugh too.
Following the success of last year’s Bat Boy (and in the tradition of Little Shop of Horrors and The Rocky Horror Show), it’s a modern rock musical with cartoonish style and gruesome fun that’s based on the 1984 movie of the same name. Its irreverent story, with book and lyrics written by Joe DiPietro (Memphis and I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change), pokes fun at both superhero movies and musicals, with plenty of little cheeky nods to Les Mis and others in this production directed by Benji Sperring.
Set in the fictional town of Tromaville, New Jersey, the area has become a toxic dumping ground for the rich inhabitants of Manhattan. In the midst of pollution, the geeky Melvin Ferd the Third (Mark Anderson) vows to save the town from its corrupt mayor (Lizzii Hills) and impress Sarah, his blind love interest (Hannah Grover). Except, when some bullies throw him in a vat of toxic waste, he returns as a mutant hulk with fearsomely impressive strength (even if his costume is laughably less than convincing).
Of course, nothing is quite as it seems. Blind Sarah is not the typically sweet innocent blonde she initially appears to be – she’s a rampant sex fiend desperate to sleep with “Toxie” who she assumes is a muscular French lover, for who else could love him but a blind girl? And Toxie himself is a gentle creature, who promises not to be violent and sings in a sweet, high tenor. The narrative does just enough to turn the genre on its head, providing plenty of belly laughs in the process with its crude humour and frequent obliterating of the fourth wall.
Much of the humour, though, stems from Black Dude (Ashley Samuels) and White Dude (Marc Pickering). With only five members of the cast, they are forced to switch rapidly between a multitude of different roles. What could become tiresome instead becomes a thrill, the audience never knowing what they’ll do next: scientists, rock singers, policemen, drag hairdressers and more. Their performances provide a solid backbone for the remaining three. Hills offers a tour-de-force performance as both the Mayor and Ma Ferd in “Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore”; Grover is utterly convincing as the blind Sarah; and Anderson offers a stunning vocal that, in true Frankenstein fashion, finds the humanity inside the monster.
With its vibrant and fun style, catchy rock score and brilliant performances, this comic musical is intoxicating. U2 and Spiderman should be quaking in their rubber boots.