Comb your hair and keep your nails clean and short; sit up straight at the table and don't fidget; eat up your soup; don't suck your thumb; don't play with matches; look where you're going; don't be cruel. Failure to observe this memorandum, children, will bring dire consequences, often involving scissors, and usually death.
The degree to which Heinrich Hoffmann's Struwwelpeter (Shockheaded Peter) stories, published in 1844, are, or have been read to generations of German children as minatory, and how far they are a send-up of conduct regimes, seems uncertain. The tales win either way, for, like all scary stories, their denouements are both fearful and irresistibly fascinating.
They are also a gift to the style of the directorial and design team of Phelim McDermott, Julian Crouch and Graeme Gilmour, who specialise in outlandish theatrical effects and fulsome parody of theatrical illusion. So the show includes an enormous fly advancing to engorge the corpse of a hapless boy, as well as their signature cardboard walking furniture.
The enacted fables are narrated by the other element in this Creative Industry production: the musical group The Tiger Lillies, led by Martin Jacques. Jacques is deadpan sinister, with just a curl of malevolent pleasure escaping his scarlet lips until, with the inevitable end of each tale, he might peak yet higher in a dementia of insistence: "Dead! dead! dead! DEAD!"
All this is part of an overall structure which uses distortion as a physical image for the disproportion of punishment. Thus we are given that little box of dreams: a toy proscenium theatre with Advent calendar flaps and cardboard props. But the actors, beginning with Julian Bleach, part genial master of ceremonies, more predatory mortician, are too big for it, and hence, speaking from row three, terrifying. Suppressing a squeal, we are sent packing back into childhood, and revisit its dreads: the untidy boy becomes hideous with a shock of straw hair and huge, dirty nails; he who does not eat his soup will die of starvation; he who sucks his thumbs will have them cut off with a tailor's shears. Nothing fits, especially not crime and punishment.
To shape our understanding of these episodes, the company have devised a particular story around Shockheaded Peter himself. A longed-for child, when he does arrive, his parents are horrified at his hair and spidery nails and bury him beneath the floorboards. Of course, he survives and grows there, to erupt gigantically at the end. He is evidently the horror we repress but which will always return - the horror such stories help us deal with through fiction. Take the kids.
Until 18 April; then Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, LondonReuse content