The word 'original' is often overused but depend upon it, you won't have seen anything quite like this on the stage before. In the world that inspires Shockheaded Peter, 'the mind is full of monsters' that gleefully subvert and distort all expectation. Based upon The Struwwelpeter by Dr Henrich Hoffmann, these gruesome yet inventive fables were devised by Hoffman as a response to the anodyne children's stories available in 1844. Instead of the usual innocent tales you here inhabit a land where every naughty, wilful child meets a gruesome, darkly humorous end. Originally devised in collaboration with the West Yorkshire Playhouse & Lyric, Hammersmith, this 'junk opera' returns in triumph to London.
Set within a colourful pop-up world that emphasises the inherently theatrical nature of the show, the eponymous anti-hero is the strange child delivered by stork to a pining couple. But instead of the usual angelic infant they find a creature with wild hair and talons instead of nails. Horrified, they bury him beneath the floorboards, a cruel act that rebounds upon them until they finally find redemption; a metaphor perhaps for the way one cannot escape one's demons by merely suppressing them.
This is the central story around which the other tales of childish misdemeanour unfold, each presented by the machiavellian figure of the MC- a figure who, like all the performers has the blanched face and exaggerated features that conjure the stuff of nightmares. Dark humour pervades every scene so that the initially sinister soon acquires a comic undertone- even the gleefully spiteful MC makes a bid for fame as an classical actor with snatches from The Bard!
With plaintive, witty songs, the inventive use of marionettes and a top notch cast who portray this macabre David Lynch-like world with such superb conviction, it's a mesmerising, mind-boggling show that defies categorisation with insouciance. For some it may undoubtably prove hard to stomach, but in terms of sheer ingenuity alone it offers a truly distinctive experience.
A year on, the cult "junk opera" Shockheaded Peter has been remounted at the more appropriately intimate Albery Theatre. The production is still the same, and the theatrical genius and the marvellous wit which was so spellbinding at the Picadilly Theatre is still there; in fact I laughed much more than I remember doing previously. However, the former music performers, The Tiger Lillies, have now been replaced by David Thomas and Two Pale Boys (that's what they call themselves - I'm not being rude). Sadly, this is a change for the worse.
Firstly, those used to the show may be disappointed by the absence of the hilarious falsetto-voiced Martyn Jacques. In his place, Thomas seemingly painfully and unmusically grinds out the lyrics and attempts the tunes (without falsetto, fans) missing notes and often being inaudible. The change of instruments from double bass and drums to electric guitar and trumpet gives the music an often inappropriate Mexican feel, drowns out the singing, and lacts the delicacy and wit of the former musical arrangements.
In 90 minutes, I sadly saw 6 people walk out of the theatre, but this still remains a marvellously ingenious and enjoyable evening despite the new flaws.
Shockheaded Peter is becoming something of an institution, and like all such phenomena, whilst the following is growing, it is becoming more and more mainstream and the product is perhaps losing some of its original appeal. This was the third time I had seen the production on its journey from the Lyric Hammersmith to its home for the next few weeks at the Albery Theatre in St Martins Lane, via last year’s Olivier Award winning production at the Piccadilly Theatre. The self-styled “Junk Opera” is based on the short stories of the nineteenth century German doctor Heinrich Hoffmann (don’t let this fact put you off), famed for his dislike of the niceties of childhood. Just as Hoffmann disliked the contrived conventions of childhood, so Cultural Industry’s Shockheaded Peter flies in the face of slick, modern theatre, preferring a low-tech, doll’s house-like set using cardboard cut-out scenery, simple puppets and unsophisticated props. The creative team have taken one of Hoffmann’s works, Struwwelpeter, as the basis for the production, and interspersed musical representations of many of his other pieces throughout the performance.
Hoffmann’s work was noted for its ghoulish nature, suffering of naughty children, and rejection of sugar and spice, and Shockheaded Peter represents these tales wonderfully – just look how Harriet burns and how Conrad’s thumbs bleed!! Whilst much of the success of Shockheaded Peter comes from the sheer inventiveness and originality of its creators, its is the music, and not just the music itself, but the performance of the accompanying music that makes the show. On my two previous visits to the show, the music and songs were performed by their writer and composer Martyn Jacques, accompanied by his band the Tiger Lillies. The combination of Jacques haunting falsetto voice and the performance by the band was really quite unique, and provided the perfect complement to the weirdness of the whole event.
Sadly, this time round the importance of a good band and singing performance was underlined by the absence of Jacques and his Tiger Lillies, as David Thomas and his Two Pale Boys were a poor substitute. Yes man-mountain Thomas looked the part, but he seemed somehow out of place, almost uncomfortable with the material, and consistently swallowed his words thus destroying much of the lyrical wit. Not all is lost however, as we can still enjoy the wonderfully freakish performance of Julian Bleach, the show’s narrator, whose love of the gruesome, dry and cutting humour, and marvellous acting fit perfectly with the grizzly tales.
Shockheaded Peter is certainly fantastically original and tremendous fun, my only hope is that in its effort to extend its appeal, it does not succumb to second best standards.
What other critics said:
RUPERT SMITH for the GUARDIAN says, " The double-Olivier-winning show remains as fresh and unwholesome as ever, despite lengthy touring and changes in personnel. " PATRICK MARMION for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "You can describe this all you like, but seeing is believing.."MADDY COSTA for TIME OUT says, "Crackling tension...far scarier than in previous productions.." PETER HEPPLE for THE STAGE says, "Visually stunning."
External links to full reviews from newspapers...