The Tin Drum
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
17/10/17 to 28/10/17
Gunter Grass’ Noble prize winning novel’ “The Tin Drum” has already been adapted into an award winning film and here highly regarded theatre company Knee-high create their own version of the magic realist fable. Will it too be award winning and ground breaking? The show certainly opened impressively with the subtle orange glow of street lights on a small square illuminating couples slow dancing to eerie music like the ghosts Blackpool Tower ballroom. The authentically grubby and dilapidated tenements of the set lead us to believe we are in some unspecified time and place in the past which could be anywhere from Weimar Berlin to the Post War Eastern Block. Yet what we soon find out is that where we really are is in the realm of folk tale or myth. For though it may have stitched within it elements of bawdy comedy, Baroque opera and dark satire at the root of the play lies a fascination with the same archetypal characters and themes one might find in a folk or fairy tale .
The coming of age story of a cursed child, Oscar it also explores war and conflict, both the metaphorical war between the sexes and generations but also the actual violence of conflict itself and the prejudice and fear which allows it to happen. Though the play begins on a disturbing and unsettling note and tackles serious subject matter early on it soon shifts its position to something more akin to broad musical comedy. With its chase scenes, dance moves and musical numbers I found the first act often funny, at times delightful but overall rather overwhelming, a sugar rush of hyperactivity which left me rather frazzled though pleasingly so.
The second act marked a distinct contrast with the first though as the tone shifted from the giddy to the gloomy. Whereas the first act was a wild and sometimes exhausting ride with only the occasional intimation of the violence to come the second act darkened the tone considerably. The characters lost some of their clownish jollity and instead we gained a greater sense of their struggles. This was particularly true of Oscar as the grim reality of his curse dawned on both him and the audience and a genuine sadness and sympathy for the creepy little chap bubbled up unexpectedly as if from nowhere. This was partly achieved through fixing the story more definitively in a recognisable time and place which helped make the events more relatable. For with its references to a Nazi- like group called “The Order” and scenes depicting concentration camps and public executions we were clearly in WW2 Western Europe.
It was also though due to the fine performances of the cast for though all the actors were adept at bringing elements of mime, dance and clowning to emphasise their characters they also managed to invest their archetypal characters with a sense of inner life. Particularly strong performances came from the well meaning yet dim cuckold Albrect who was lent a kind of desperate and pathetic pathos or the charismatic Granny Brodski and her palpable sense of lusty vigour. Special mention must of course be given to the puppet performers who were a key element of what made the show so magical whether it was the boorish geezer Devil, Baby Kurt or Granny Brodski’s surprisingly lifelike goose.
The most impressive performance of all was from the hero himself, Oscar. Played in the main by a deliciously creepy puppet – a little wooden boy whose face appeared permanently ruffled in a scowl he stalked the proceedings with a sense of ambiguous purpose. Was he hero or villain? Was he to be pitied or feared? It was not always clear. And this perhaps was key to the often unsettling quality of the play.
The second act was con vied with just as much sense of imagination as the first half yet its effect was markedly different creating an atmosphere which was at times oppressive and disturbing. Much of this strength came not from the performances themselves – good though they were – but from the lighting, music and set design. This was superb throughout and created a rich sense of foreboding through powerful imagery and imaginative use of music and sound which constantly adapted to the action in a seamless and perfectly synchronised way. Many of the main characters got their own musical theme such as Albrecht’s lumpen bass tones or Maria’s jaunty melody yet the music itself was a wonderful character in its own right. With inventive use of synths, drones and electronic drums it took in elements of disco, funk, musical hall and dark ambience to create a sound which could turn from the comic to the sinister in a moments notice.
The lighting as well as the music and set was also key to much of the strong atmosphere of the show. Whether it was recreating the throbbing magenta hues of the womb, the flickering fires of an arson attack or the violent white light of an exploded bomb the lighting throughout created a rich vibrancy towards the proceedings particularly towards the plays conclusion. The play ended on a tone which was as mysterious and ambivalent as it began which left me in a rather bewitched state.
Though as in any good folk tale there were clearly morals here if you cared to look for them too such as matriarch Granny Brodski’s assertion that “We are all different, we are all the same” and though I could see that this could be a story about all wars, about all conflicts I remained somewhat confounded as to what it had all been about. There had been so many fantastic, vivid scenes such as Grandpa Jo’s madcap escape from the law or Oscar banging his tin drum making the soldiers dance to a dark techno pulse. Indeed the show went beyond any expectations I had in its perfect blending of acting, puppetry and music. At times I’d found it funny, unsettling, exhausting (the sensory overload of the first act particularly) and enchanting. Yet I still left not knowing really what it had all been about but perhaps that after all was not really the point. For what it certainly was was a fabulous piece of theatre whose powerful images resonated in my mind long after the curtain came down like a half remembered dream or – more likely – a nightmare.
Reviewer : Ian Pepper