Once in a while every five years or so, if we are very lucky a show comes along which incites a critic to abandon even any pretence at chin-stroking contemplation and simply pant enthusiastically, "Rush now to see this glorious piece of work". Such a moment was the appearance in London last year of Shockheaded Peter. And now it is back, and we can all rush to see it again.
This is Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch's gleefully grotesque adaptation of Heinrich Hoffmann's 19th-century Struwwelpeter cautionary tales for children, in which Harriet burns to death when she plays with matches, Conrad Suck-a-Thumb bleeds to death when the Scissor Man removes the offending digits, Fidgety Philip impales himself on the family's best cutlery and so forth. The tales are woven together by a semi-narrative in which a couple, horrified when the stork brings them a straw-haired, long-nailed baby, hide it under the floorboards and are haunted both physically and psychologically by the neglected child.
It hardly sounds a laugh a minute, but the production's rich broth of grand Guignol, puppetry, trompe l'il Victorian toy theatre design and an infectious delight in the artifice of the whole process combine to create 90 continuous minutes of bizarre, unholy fun the kind of show that will make earnest parents blanch even as their children revel in the gore and grotesquerie. The tone is set by the first appearance of Julian Bleach's magnificently comic-chilling master of ceremonies, a close cousin to the Child Catcher of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: "Ladies... and gentlemen," he announces with utmost floridity, and then, as a reluctant afterthought, adds, "...boys and girls," rather as if the odour of a three-week-dead stoat had just wafted past his flaring Expressionist nostrils. This is a creation who can draw laughs by announcing sepulchrally, "And so another young life is pointlessly snuffed out."
But the crucial ingredient have I not mentioned this yet? is that the show is a musical, a "junk opera" and the perfect vehicle for the perverse, nightmare-Berlin-cabaret style of The Tiger Lillies trio, led by leering accordionist and piercing falsetto vocalist Martyn Jacques. These wonderfully dark stories are told primarily in song (most, though not all, are enacted to accompany the music), with Jacques shrieking horrifying nursery-rhyme couplets such as the cats' observation about poor Harriet: "Miaow, mi-oh, miaow, mi-oh/She's burned to death we told her so." Jacques's disgusting relish in rhyming on the word "...dead!" communicates to the audience, who by the tale of Johnny Head-in-Air are joyously crying out each repetition along with him. Fidgety Phil's demise is accompanied by drummer Adrian Huge (yes, really) playing a percussion solo on kitchen utensils.
The sole reservation expressed about the show last year by Alastair Macaulay that its opening stages clunk and drag seems to have been addressed; it now runs ten to fifteen minutes faster, with the earlier scenes rounding off more sharply and even Jacques forgoing the occasional savoured "...dead!" Anyone who has ever strayed even momentarily from the strictest canons of "good taste" will find it a magical, liberating experience.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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