The Animals and Children Took to the Streets, BAC, London
Once Bitten, Orange Tree, London
Bea, Soho Theatre, London
A subversive multi-media story set in a stinking slum; a convoluted French farce that hits the mark; and a sickbed drama that dares to deal in humour
Sunday 02 January 2011
The place is wriggling with perverts.
Or so says the narrator, her clown-white face poking out through yellowed net curtains. The kitchen sinks have scabies, and the cats have rabies, she adds. As scuzzy housing goes, Red Herring Street is the pits.
Our slum-tenement storyteller – performance artist Suzanne Andrade in a knotted headscarf – hovers between skid-row grittiness and burlesque. She's like some Berlin cabaret act, accompanied by a mock-baleful pianist. This retro styling combines with animation techniques to make The Animals and Children Took to the Streets an outstanding multimedia piece by the young troupe 1927 (directed by Andrade).
Live actors and art-house cartoons interact as this dystopian satire relates the tale of Red Herring Street's gang of underage underdogs who turn into mini-revolutionaries. They kidnap the mayor's cat, only to be crushed by the authorities. Transported en masse to a sinister sweet- factory-cum-prison camp, the little terrors are fed Granny's Gumdrops (sugar-coated hard drugs) until transformed into brain-dead, model citizens.
Granted, the storyline is a tad scrappy, but this experimental chamber piece looks fabulous. Using angled projection screens, animator Paul Barritt creates mesmeric, flickering cityscapes. The sink estate is a warren of corridors and elevator shafts, its walls crawling with cartoon cockroaches. Andrade and her co-stars (Esme Appleton and Lillian Henley) gawp from windows that open within the screens. At other points, they wander in front, among the animations, jostled by hordes of silhouettes and paper-collage characters who lob their limbs about like boomerangs.
Artistically, this is an international pastiche, combining cute doodles with whirling German Expressionism and Soviet-influenced Constructivism. Think Mr Benn meets The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Fritz Lang's Metropolis.
The show's satirical snarl is worse than its bite. Still, with targets including arty liberals, it is sharply knowing and all the more subversive for being formatted like darkly twisted kids' fare. Albeit indebted to theatrical predecessors – notably Forkbeard Fantasy and the junk opera Shockheaded Peter – The Animals and Children ... is richly quirky, terrifically ambitious for a tiny company, and superbly executed. Where will 1927 go from here? Theirs is a name to watch.
In the little-known French farce Once Bitten – written by Alfred Hennequin and Alfred Delacour in the 1870s – a superficially respectable lawyer gets his long johns in a twist. David Antrobus's Monsieur Fauvinard and his chum, Mark Frost's Tardivaut, are trying to juggle covert mistresses, a yapping mutt, a suspicious mother-in-law and a larceny case.
I feared that I was replete with farce, after the NT's Alan Ayckbourn revival and the Old Vic's A Flea in Her Ear. The Orange Tree's production isn't as well cast as either, and it occasionally misses a trick. Yet Sam Walter's in-the-round staging proves enjoyable, in part because it feels so homely. In a cosy venue, the actors' comings and goings are at friskily close quarters, with tailcoats and silk frocks brushing the audience's knees. The stagehand perched in one corner is entertainingly DIY too, supplying all the sound effects of slamming doors and muffled barks.
And while Briony Roberts is hammy as the harridan-in-law, Antrobus is droll, shuffling out of a tight corner under a tablecloth. Amy Neilson Smith delights as the hyperventilating maidservant with the memory of a goldfish. And the confusions of identity become gloriously convoluted, abetted by gaga Uncle Gatinet, who veers between lust and narcolepsy.
In Bea, both written and directed by Mick Gordon, the 20-something heroine has been struck down by a chronic debilitating illness. She has severely slurred speech and, we glean, can't wash or feed herself without help. Yet Pippa Nixon's strong-minded Bea is clear about what she wants: she wants her mother, Paula Wilcox's stressed Katherine, to assist her suicide.
This three-hander is about not just euthanasia but our capacity for empathy (limited or not). What's striking is the comedic and non-naturalistic impulses Gordon brings into play. He shows us not the bedridden body, but rather Bea's spirit: the lustily bouncy young woman trapped inside. We first see Nixon springing on her mattress, disco-dancing. And when her new, camp carer walks in, she and Al Weaver's Ray hit it off, chatting (unslurred) and laughing. We only gradually come to see the grim physical reality. En route, what's more, the sickbed drama dares to turn into a farce. Katherine is outraged when she catches Ray administering unprescribed favours.
The snag is that the banter too often verges on the cute. Gordon's aim, clearly, is to make a distressing subject palatable, but too big a spoonful of sugar can make one gag. However, that makes the heartbreak of the closing scenes the more poignant. The final image of release – Nixon's Bea leaping up once again and dancing on the bed – is a life-affirming, and death-affirming, glimpse of ecstasy.
'The Animals and Children Took to the Streets' (020-7223 2223) to 8 Jan; 'Once Bitten' (020-8940 3633) to 5 Feb; 'Bea' (020-7478 0100) to 8 Jan
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