Walking out of the Arts Theatre after seeing The Toxic Avenger, a fellow audience member was heard saying: “I’ve seen everything on the West End, and I’ve never seen anything like that.” I thought in that moment he’d summed up the experience perfectly. Even if you think you know what you’re going to get with David Bryan and Joe DiPietro’s much buzzed-about musical comedy, you’re almost certainly wrong.
And I mean that in the best possible way, of course. A show with more dick jokes per minute than should really be allowed in polite society, and that consistently makes fun of blind people, nerds and “whoever wrote The Diary of Anne Frank”, The Toxic Avenger is nevertheless an absolute delight from start to finish.
The show follows Melvin (Mark Anderson), a high school environment geek who falls into a vat of toxic waste (which are commonplace in this New Jersey) and uses his resultant mutant powers to save the city from the evil corporation responsible for the pollution. In between tearing off arms and belting out showtunes, Melvin is finally able to woo horny blind librarian Sarah (Emma Salvo), though only by posing as ‘Toxie’.
The show is based on the 1984 cult classic movie, and made its premiere on this side of the atlantic at the Edinburgh Fringe before travelling to the Southwark Playhouse. The subject matter is one of those bizarre and inspired choices that really boggles the mind for how well it works.
The cast are magic across the board, balancing the required comedic chops, musical ability, physicality and ability to quick change dozens of times over the course of the show that the challenging roles require. Oscar Conlen-Morrey and Che Francis – as White Dude and Black Dude, respectively – and Natalie Hope warrant particular mention for portraying countless (really, I lost count) parts with aplomb.
At times this comes off like a Starkid musical had Starkid gone on to produce more polished and professional shows, committed to its B-movie aesthetic and intentionally lame humour than ensures the audience are never taking things more seriously than the musical itself.
There will be those who find the humour too crude or offensive, but the show never feels mean-spirited.
As those behind the best of this subgenre know, it only works if you’ve got good music, and The Toxic Avenger succeeds there as well. Every song is a triumph in its own way, the production mixing musical styles and homaging each expected beat (the plucky ‘gonna get the guy’ song; the lovelorn ballad etc.) without ever outwearing their welcome.
The trick is to make the songs funny and emotionally effective all at once, and the show manages to do that in between dildo jokes and Oprah worship.
Toxic Avenger is meticulously haphazard, which we all know is the hardest oxymoron to pull off. It consistently and joyously plays with the audience through meta-humour, the numerous references to fellow West End musicals becoming more explicit and increasingly hilarious to any theatre nerds in the audience who noticed the first act’s more subtle nods.
The stage’s metaphorical fourth wall is always on the verge of crumbling completely as the script and performers hurtle through plot and musical numbers. The band is visible, and things only get more wonky from there. To say more would be to ruin the surprise.
The Toxic Avenger isn’t like anything else on the London stage right now, and for that alone it’s worth applauding. Sometimes the best things come from weird beginnings, and cult classics are cult classics in whatever medium.
The Toxic Avenger will be at the Arts Theatre until December 3.
With thanks to London Box Office.