Yeast Nation: The Triumph of Life review – a defeat for the theater | Theater

Jhis 2007 musical features singing and dancing yeast particles, swimming at the bottom of the ocean more than three billion years ago. But there are few laughs in a show that belongs to the experimental Petri dish of misjudged ideas from which it emerged.

It’s fun at first when eight figures dressed in green socks and frou-frou nets emerge from under a white sheet. They might be yeast but they look like extras from Wicked; one even wears a broomstick, though as a set they also look like old prototypes of that show’s flying monkeys.

The first number from Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’ score, Hear the Song, is catchy and the vocals and melodies run strong throughout. The problem is the muddled plot, the lack of distinct and interesting characters, and any sense of cohesive meaning to the book and the score, however exuberantly it is delivered – and the performers’ commitment is not lacking.

Japey consciously… Yeast Nation at Southwark Playhouse. Photography: PR

A Lear-like Yeast Cell King called Jan the Elder (Christopher Howell) appears with his children, all with the same name (Shane Convery plays Jan the Wise, Stephen Lewis-Johnston plays Jan the Second Elder, Hannah Nuttall is Jan sweet etc). A ploy to impeach him. There are mentions of a traitor among them. If this is the primordial ocean, it looks like a Jacobean court with single-celled organisms that talk like waterborne Richard IIIs.

There is a subplot about lack of food, with references to fat cells and eaten “mud”. Not much is explained or developed. A repeated pun on “rising” yeast becomes tiresome. A menacing pink hand puppet appears in another confusing trick.

Directed by Benji Sperring, the show buzzes with a self-conscious sense of japey being so bad it’s good until it just gets, downright bad. The choreography is minimal, repetitive and muffled across the crowded stage, with the actors moving their limbs in the same few shaky movements to remind us they’re under the sea.

Diego Pitarch’s set design consists of chunky gray beanbags, which signify rocks, and a circular cart – you never know what a cart is doing on the ocean floor. Nic Farman’s lighting is often bilious green, as if a bucket of drool has been thrown over the production. If this is an attempt at absurd theatre, it comes across as a leftist school concert gone wrong.

The debates plunge to an all-time high with the song Stasis is the Membrane (“that keeps everything together, in all weathers”). The lyrics continue in this vein, sounding as if they themselves emerged from the mess of the diluvial swamp. Passion enters the plot with the song Love Equals Pain but it is unclear who fell in love with whom and how this relates to the rest of the story.

Also, never mind the pain of love. Theater can equal pain too. However bona fide the audience was at the start, it froze after two hours and 40 minutes on press night in a blisteringly hot auditorium. It all sounds like prolonged self-indulgence. Better to put back in the petri dish and leave in an eternity of splendid fungal isolation.

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