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Review of THE TOXIC AVENGER at Southwark Playhouse

The Toxic AvengerSome musicals really should not work. After all, nobody would want to see a show based on a rather silly and camp movie, where the audience are encouraged to laugh at people with disabilities, environmental destruction and high-level corruption would they? You should ask those fine people at Aria Entertainment who have decided the time is right to bring The Toxic Avenger to the Southwark Playhouse for its European premiere.

There is a problem in the town of Tromaville, New Jersey, where vats of toxic waste have started appearing all over the place. Aspiring Earth scientist Melvin Ferd the Third (Mark Anderson) is determined to do something about all of the pollution and enlists the help of blind librarian – and secret love of his life – Sarah (Hannah Grover) to find out what is going on. It doesn’t take Melvin long to find out that Babs Belgoody, the corrupt mayor of the town (Lizzii Hills), has entered into a pretty sweet – for her at least – kickback deal with businessmen from nearby Manhattan to dispose of all of the city’s toxic waste in her town, while she pursues her ambition to become Governor of New Jersey. Confronted by the evidence Melvin has found, the mayor decides the best thing to do is to bump him off and gets her two goons (Ashley Samuels and Marc Pickering) to do the necessary. They attack Melvin and toss him into a conveniently placed drum of toxic waste where, rather than die, Melvin undergoes a major physical and mental change leading to the rise of The Toxic Avenger, out for revenge, environmental protection and finding love in a cruel world that judges by appearance.

According to Wikipedia, The Toxic Avenger is a rock musical that is based on Michael Herz and Lloyd Kaufman’s 1984 film of the same name. The book of the musical was written by Joe DiPietro, its music by David Bryan, and both wrote the lyrics. This all very true but does not even begin to do justice to how awesome this production is. From the moment my companion and I saw Mike Lees’ wonderful toxic dump set, being shown to our seats by ushers in hazmat suits, we were hooked. The lights didn’t so much go down as disappear and the action started at a furious pace which was maintained throughout. The acting space may have been limited and the cast only number five in total but Director Benji Sperring used every inch of space and every facet of his cast’s talent to bring The Toxic Avenger to life superbly.  One of the highlights of the story and songs is spotting the rather cheeky references to other musicals that have been slipped into the production.

The cast were truly brilliant, and I have to single out some high spots, among so many moments, that beautifully demonstrate their exceptional skills. The first was Hanna Grover’s portrayal of the blind librarian, Sarah, who managed to get the audience laughing at Sarah’s actions as she tried to do the simplest things like stamp a book or put them on shelves, or even get out of her own apartment. The real skill was that she played the part so well that the audience never felt guilty for laughing at Sarah and you had the feeling you were laughing along with her as she faced her disability. Moving on to Lizzie Hills, probably the highest point in a wonderful portrayal was the final song of Act I where Lizzie sang a duet with herself playing both the Mayor and Ma Ferd such diametrically opposite characters that you would have thought it impossible for them to be played by the same actor but Lizzie pulls it off with a grace and style that had the audience clapping with amazement. Turning to Mark Anderson. Again, another bravura performance as Marc took Melvin from mild-mannered, very geeky nerd to the Toxic Avenger where, without losing any of the former’s underlying goodness, his personality – not to say looks – changed considerably. There is one moment in the second act where Toxic sings a solo about his heartache and for one of the first times in my life, I nearly shed a tear for a big green monster with an in a place no eye should be. Finally, the fantastic double act that is Marc Pickering and Ashley Samuels who play literally everyone else by means of some very fast costume changes and a range of acting skills that include school bullies, a tough, if rather dim cop, a scientist highly susceptible to womanly whiles and and a pair of street-wise  sassy girls who put the A into attitude.

OK, I think you may have guessed that I liked The Toxic Avenger a bit. Well yes, both my companion and I absolutely loved it. Yes, the story is pretty flimsy, some of the songs are a bit cheesy and the entire show is performed with tongue very firmly in cheek. I sat there with a grin on my face from start to finish and though it may have been camper than a row of tents, I can honestly say that there is nothing I would have changed from last night’s performance of The Toxic Avenger, which started with a bang and ended with a standing ovation from the highly appreciative audience.  

The Toxic Avenger works on every level. Ultimately, you can go into the West End and see multi-million-pound musicals that somehow fail to meet the standard or you can come to Southwark and see how a musical should be done.  Along with “Rocky Horror” and “Urinetown”, The Toxic Avenger ranks high in my list of musicals that are so wrong on paper and so right in reality. Don’t delay, book today!

5 Star Rating

Review by Terry Eastham

The European premiere of this monster of a rock ‘n’ roll musical comedy from the Tony Award-winning creative team behind Memphis, Joe DiPietro and David Bryan, and based on the 1984 cult classic film from Troma Entertainment comes to The Large for a five-week run.

The citizens of Tromaville are crying out for a hero – enter Melvin Ferd the Third, an aspiring earth scientist determined to clean up the toxic waste problem. But when a corrupt Mayor and her government goons try to stop this heroic feat, Melvin is tossed into a vat of toxic waste and transformed into The Toxic Avenger, New Jersey’s first superhero!

‘Toxie’ is a seven-foot mutant freak with superhuman strength and a supersized heart to match. He’s out to save New Jersey, end global warming, woo the prettiest (blindest) librarian in town and get home in time for dinner, in this toxic love story with an environmental twist. Prepare to laugh, scream and sing as ‘Toxie’ rocks the house and saves the day.

Based on Lloyd Kaufman’s The Toxic Avenger.

Presented by arrangement with Josef Weinberger Limited on behalf of Music Theatre International of New York.

Creative Team
Director – Benji Sperring
Musical Director – Alex Beetschen
Lighting Designer – Nic Farman
Casting Director – Jane Deitch
Choreographer – Lucie Pankhurst
Photos credit Claire Bilyard

Cast: Mark Anderson, Hannah Grover, Lizzii Hills, Marc Pickering and Ashley Samuels

Book tickets from £25.00
The Toxic Avenger
22 APRIL – 21 MAY 2016
Southwark Playhouse
77-85 Newington Causeway, London, SE1 6BD

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