A musical about a kingdom of Yeast, happening 3 billion years BC, just sounds exciting, and almost ridiculously juicy as a concept.
When I first saw the posters of this play on social media a couple of months ago, I was intrigued! I got my tickets right away and was looking forward to it. Who wouldn’t want to see the staging of one of the most peculiar ideas in modern theatre?
“Yeast Nation” provides the creative freedom with the script, costumes, and staging – with endless possibilities. Unfortunately, these possibilities were somewhat underutilised and relatively flat in execution.
Never heard such powerful yeasts before!
Let’s start with the key to every musical. The performances are excellent. The voices – wow. Knowing that half of the cast consists of fresh grads, I could almost not believe my eyes (or rather ears)— these were such powerful, well-trained voices. Stephen Lewis-Johnston as Jan the Second Eldest and Hannah Nuttall as Jan the Sweet provided a beautiful, well-rounded show and I would love to see them both in any other upcoming musical. The whole cast did a fabulous job with their portrayal of yeasts and it looked like they had fun doing it. The cast and their acting and singing skills were the strongest value of the show.
There’s a slight drawback though – because the music was set so incredibly loud (tech issue?), most of the group songs had to be practically shouted, I could feel how painful that was in my ears. The songs, mixing pop, gospel, and classic musical songs, are nice to hear (when not shouted), but none of them sticks or is recognisable enough to grab your attention right away.
The recent case of a similar, ridiculous, sarcastic underwater world was delivered in “Unfortunate” (by Fat Rascal Theatre) – a show I’m still a massive fan of. The title track and “We didn’t make it to Disney” are prime examples of silly, ridiculous songs being memorable. Wish “Yeast Nation” was able to deliver a score that would make me search for it on Spotify on my way home too! In this case, it just didn’t work for me.
Diving deep into the underwater world
The movement design is beautiful. Each yeast has its style of walking/dancing, and there’s a lot of it. At certain moments, the floating feeling was overpowering and made me genuinely feel like I was underwater. The times when the stage setup is moved and prompts the yeasts to move around and use the Minion-like yeast sounds were among the most successful in the play for me.
There are a couple of fun moments, mostly located in the second act, which made the show a bit disbalanced for me. The self-awareness moments, when one of the yeasts comments on a biological aspect of themselves, or the future evolution, caused bursts of laughter among the audience. The song about stasis (at the end of first act),with a bit of a “communist spirit,” is a nice tongue-in-cheek. And the second in general act lets more comedic juices flow with the arrival of little monsters (in the form of hand puppets).
So much potential, but such a script let down
What I was disappointed with the most, and what the whole play’s concept relies on, was the script. I was expecting to find out more about the kingdom’s story and the daily life of yeasts. What do they do on a daily basis? Did they create any kind of rituals? I was looking forward to immersing myself in the lives of yeasts and spending time with them to build some emotional connection with the characters. Some plays create a fantastic, utterly new world based on just one simple concept. Here, unfortunately, it was severely lacking.
The first act, with a classic, almost Shakespearean story about the fight for power, could be staged in any human world (medieval, modern.. even in the stone age). The story was so… normal, that I kept on wondering, why do you need to create the yeast concept around it? It’s just another royal family drama. In the second act, the script gets a bit more yeast-specific, but it still left me feeling unsatisfied with the concept of yeast and its word.
Too many Jans to follow
The characters are hard to remember and follow, simply because I could not care much about them. Each “Jan” is introduced at the beginning of the play in 1 sentence. And, well… That’s all. Jan The Sweet, an apparent protagonist, is supposed to be likeable… Because her father died. That’s it; we are given no more character development. The villains are slightly better developed and let us inside their minds a bit more as they scheme about their “big plans.” But as a whole, the character development seems unfinished.
I found myself leaving Southwark Playhouse with slight disappointment. I had such high hopes for this show, but it feels like it’s just not yet finished work with the script. For the audience to care and feel the play more, much more development is needed.
Mark Hollman – author
Greg Kotis – author
Benji Sperring – director
Lucie Pankhurst – choreographer
Michael Webborn – musical director
22 JUL – 27 AUG 2022
Stephen Lewis Johnston