“Trashy, crude, and sublimely ridiculous, this musical breaks all the rules with a grin on its face”
‘Warning: “The Toxic Avenger” Contains scenes of extreme violence’ reads the opening credit of the 1984 cult classic film. It’s a warning not quite warranted on entering the Southwark Playhouse theatre to watch the musical stage version. But perhaps a warning of sorts should have been provided. Just so those a bit easier to offend knew what they might be letting themselves in for…
Following the well-trod narrative of many a Marvel superhero – but with some notable differences – an outcast, Melvin Ferd the Third, is uncool, can’t get the girl and suffers incessant bullying, culminating in being thrown into a vat of New Jersey’s abundant supply of toxic waste by the local bullies. Transformed by his dousing in chemicals, the geeky, virginal boy becomes a hideously deformed but super-ripped version of himself and starts to take advantage of his new found power and strength to bring revenge on the evil-doers of his town, Tromaville. A hot, blind librarian, previously dismissive of Melvin’s timid advances, now goes wild for the feel of her ‘Toxie’s’ new physique and sets on seducing him as his girlfriend.
Channeling something like The Rocky Horror Show meets The Book of Mormon in its camp, glam-rock aesthetic and irreverent, but less-intellectually minded, disregard for societal taboos, the play is a raunch-filled romp of a musical delight from start to finish. As I look over at my theatre date, an Austrian colleague of mine, she squirms visibly in her seat watching Hannah Grover, playing blind Sarah, pretend to masturbate on stage, feel audience members up as she struggles to “find” her way, and finally get down with her hunky green hero while one of his eyes dangles from its tendons (cue the apt line “When your head looks decayed, it’s hard to get laid”).
A caricature of all that’s base in US society, there are some moments that border on moral poignancy, as our “hero” brutally murders an old lady in a fit of rage, behaviour later condoned when it was discovered she “wasn’t a good person” and “was probably nearly dead anyway”. When Sarah is repulsed by Toxie’s deformed face, her girlfriends reprimand her singing that “all men are freaks” really.
The economy of the actors is mind-boggling, as millisecond costume changes bring an endless slew of new characters, climaxing with both the Mayor and Ma Ferd performing “Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore” simultaneously in a awe-inspiring schizophrenic performance by Lizzii Hills.
Aside from all the slapstick there are some scorching vocals and seriously catchy tunes, set off by a live band who manage to whip up a rock ‘n’ roll storm while huddled behind barrels of fake toxic goo, and a brilliantly rough-round-the edges set that draws the crowd into the scenes in the small space of the stage.
The ambition of the play is risky. The film its based on is niche – chances are most people will not have seen it. But as in any small-scale performance, the real success of this staging of The Toxic Avenger rests heavily on the wit and fierce talent of the performers, in particular the comic timing of multi-charactered Marc and the spine-tingling vocals of Lizzii, who lift it out of pure crudity and manage to wow while making you laugh.
If you’re not a series B fan, the play’s charms may initially be lost on you. But the play captures the genre – which takes gore, sex and violence to such extreme that the horrific becomes the hilarious – at its core and brings it onto the stage in a relentlessly funny and imaginative way.
Trashy, crude, and sublimely ridiculous, this musical breaks all the rules with a grin on its face and liberates the audience from its usual expectations of a theatre visit.
I would highly recommend you get down to see Europe’s première of the gory musical before it closes this week – who knows which other British establishment will have the guts to run it. Kudos to the ever-ambitious Southwark Playhouse for doing so.
As for my friend, if the performance was a bit too much for her, she should steer well clear of that movie…
Pictures credit: Claire Bilyard
Presented by arrangement with Josef Weinberger Limited on behalf of Music Theatre International of New York. Book and Lyrics by Joe DiPietro. Music and Lyrics by David Bryan
Showing till 21 May at the Southwark Playhouse