Insane in the membrane: Yeast Nation, The Triumph of Life @swkplay


A musical about yeast conjures up all sorts of things about what it could be. Is it about a nation's obsession with home baking during a lockdown? Or is it the latest infection outbreak? No, it's neither of these. Instead, it is a rock musical about the unicellular organisms living in the primordial soup. Purporting to be the oldest story of all time (as it’s probably hard to go back further than single-cell organisms), It's part rock musical, part history lesson, part Greek chorus and part bonkers. And it's currently playing at the Southwark Playhouse.

Narrated by Jan, the unnamed, it tells the tale of a series of salt-eating yeasts (all called Jan) at the bottom of the primordial soup/sea. They are in stasis, following careful strictures, so they don't reproduce or change. They sing a catchy tune called stasis is the membrane and live a balanced life with the soup around them. 


But not all yeasts are satisfied with stasis. And when some yeasts rise to the top to feed, a new life form arrives. At first, it is welcome as it's cute and has google eyes, but then it becomes a monster and causes chaos by consuming everything. Including the Jans. Alas, it's a yeast eat yeast world

The music is a mix of rock styles. Some of the music evoked rock musicals (and even Barbra Streisand tunes) of the seventies and so often felt comfortingly familiar. The soupy acoustics of the theatre meant not everything could be heard (although this depends on where you sit). It also makes it hard to follow everything going on. But the cast delivered the numbers with energy and vigour. Well as vigorous as you can be when you're portraying a yeast. 

Probably more of a challenge for the ensemble is having to act while in a pale leotard covered with what looks like enormous shower scrunchies. It might have made more sense to ground the yeasts into something more like a Greek chorus (which is possibly the piece's intent). It might have been more comfortable for the performers as well. In the warmth of the Southwark Playhouse, the primordial soup looked like it was giving some of the performers a severe case of swamp ass

Still, even if you can't entirely follow the plot and are distracted by the costumes, you can't fault the enthusiasm and lunacy of the piece. And musical theatre fans should see it as a work by Urinetown co-creators Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis. Directed by Benji Sperring, Yeast Nation, The Triumph of Life is playing at Southwark Playhouse until 27 August.

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️



Photos by Claire Byliard

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