Maxim Gorki Theater, Berlin
Opened 4 November, 2010
Barely a month after The Tiger Lillies opened their most successful concept show since Shockheaded Peter in Berlin, another venue in the city revives that junk opera itself. Ronny Jakubashck’s production does not attempt to reproduce the life-size Victorian toy-theatre grotesquerie of Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch’s original. Instead, Martyn Jacques of the Lillies’ songs (based on Heinrich Hoffmann’s 1844 collection of cautionary tales for children, Struwwelpeter) are played out on a vaguely nursery-ish set by a quartet of performers dressed in archaic children’s costumes: shorts for the boys, sailor suits for the girls, but all in scarlet.

The difference is best personified in the dominant performers of the respective productions. The original was overseen by Julian Bleach’s master of ceremonies, a lanky, sinister streak of vinegar with a body that seemed constructed entirely out of knees. There is no such role here, but out from the ensemble stands Britta Hammelstein, a petite figure with the wicked smile of a knowing schoolgirl and all the musical abandon of Nina Hagen at her wildest. The trio of musicians tend to focus on drums, brass and keyboards, but Hans-Jörn Brandenburg’s arrangements generally sound less raucous than the Lillies, although they are not beyond the occasional Eisleresque blare as on “The Story of the Man That Went Out Shooting”. Sometimes they are positively dulcet (and matched by Hammelstein’s vocals on the poignant closing number, “Flying Robert”).

Most of McDermott and Crouch’s framing scenes have been excised or replaced by the likes of a drawn-out fat-suit sequence when Matti Krause enters to sing about Augustus who would not eat his soup (alias Suppen-Kaspar). Once or twice the humour verges on the winsome, as when Krause and Johann Jürgens engage in conversation about having children: “How many [do you want]?” – “Until we get a nice one.”

On its own terms, this 80-minute version is never less than entertaining, and it is after all unfair to look on the production as if McDermott, Crouch and Jacques own the material: Hoffmann’s stories had been a classic of German culture for over a century and a half and been through innumerable adaptations before the Brits got their hands on it.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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