Some of our most recent experiences of yeast will most likely come from our own fervent lockdown breadmaking. Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’ Yeast Nation takes the familiar, useful (and clearly misunderstood) microorganisms to another level, quite literally. Directed by Benji Sperring, we are taken on a Shakespearean journey of love, revolution and survival that is incredibly (and humorously) self-aware of its overly dramatic and not so accurate nature.
Words cannot fully describe what takes place on the stage of the Southwark Playhouse
A self-described fever dream, Yeast Nation begins at the birth of the first organisms - the Yeasts - as they live in the stasis of the Lower Levels of the primordial soup, fighting to survive after a period of overconsumption. After Jan the Wretched’s (James Gulliford) crimes against the Strictures, Jan the Second Eldest (Stephen Lewis-Johnston) and Jan the Sweet (Hannah Nuttall) strive to find a new way to live and survive by exploring the forbidden Upper Levels. In the meantime, Jan the Sly (Mari McGinlay) and Jan the Wise (Shane Convery) plot to seize control of the political body to maintain the status quo and survival of the yeasts. There are several layers of the plot: firstly it is a story about a society trying to survive, whether that is through change or stasis; a love-story and a very inaccurate retelling of evolution. A more explicit discussion of the Malthusian problem that is very visible in our own society, Yeast Nation leads us to question the nature of our existence by simplifying the issues of today as far as they possibly can go, literally to the level of single-celled organisms.
Initially contextualizing the show with a murky oppressiveness, Nic Farman's lighting design plays around with the darker and lighter aspects of the setting and the revolutionary thread that weaves throughout the musical, before fully launching into a 60s-eque hallucinogenic state that is Love Equals Pain, creating a cheeriness reflected in the orchestrations rather than the lyrics. Farman’s lighting takes us from the bottom depths of the primordial soup to the top, becoming lighter as the characters’ journeys develop and progress physically, metaphorically and spiritually, creating stark visual moments that will forever be embedded in our minds. It is incredibly impressive that two people can provide the rich accompaniment of a full band to the fun and incredibly specific lyrics that the humour of the show relies on. However, there is a lack of balance between the performers and the band, making it difficult to hear the performers and leads to the odd distracting thought about whether the incredibly loud volume will give you tinnitus. Both of these factors mean that we miss important lines which detracts from the musical's rich moments of comedy. As great as the orchestrations are, they are not the last thing that I would ever like to hear.
McGinlay’s Jan the Sly is probably one of the most unapologetically evil characters there are, and it is refreshing to see a traditionally male archetype reclaimed and redefined by an incredibly talented actress. McGinlay’s slithery over-pronunciation and manipulation, accompanied by the strong bass line in Little Sister creates a special kind of darkness reserved for only the best of villainesses. Convery’s Iago-esque performance creates an ambiance of discomfort whenever they appear, casting a long shadow over the action. The moral degradation of Jan the Wise raises the stakes exponentially, and Convery’s maniacal desperation creates a character that we love to hate.
Hollmann and Kotis write incredibly memorable songs and melodies for tenors, and this musical is no different. From I’ll Change the World Around Her to the Act 1 Finale to You’re Not the Yeast You Used To Be and beyond, Lewis-Johnston’s performance and singing is everything that we could want from a leading tenor in one of Hollmann and Kotis’ musicals. It is not difficult to see the influences of Bobby Strong in the arc of Jan the Second Eldest, and Lewis-Johnston manages to carve out a distinct interpretation of the role. The development of the relationship between Jan the Second Eldest and Jan the Sweet through the medium of revolution is incredibly realistic in that the actors themselves have done everything to clearly build and show us the steps along the way. The care taken over this is remarkably clear and commendable. The role of Jan the Sweet seems to have been written for Nuttall, as she slips on the skin of the character to the point where it’s hard to see where Sweet ends and Nuttall begins. With an incredibly powerful voice, Nuttall’s interpretation of the score and character is without a doubt transcendental. Her performance of Burnin’ Soul in particular stands out, and is the unexpected restart that we need after the tribalistic and dictatorial melodies that we have heard up to that point.
A story of evolution beyond Charles Darwin’s wildest dreams, Yeast Nation is a bio-historical musical that is revolutionary in more than one sense of the word. The transformational nature of the plot and the characters make up for any sense of confusion we may have. It is through the reassurances from the cast onstage of the ridiculousness and chaos of the action onstage that we are able to keep up. Everything about this show is phenomenal, the score in particular. Although I have tried, words cannot fully describe what takes place on the stage of the Southwark Playhouse.