Photo by Tanesa Whiting
In one scene, the narrator (Julian Bleach) of Shockheaded Peter — the much-heralded, ghoulish cabaret/puppet show from England — holds a large magnifying glass in front of his face in order to distort and distend his nostrils and eye sockets. Like the rest of the show, the gesture is enlivened by the tension between terror and whimsy. Indeed, if the Addams Family ever put on civic light opera, it might resemble this.
In whiteface and torn Edwardian garb, the narrator opens the show by glaring at the audience for a couple of minutes before intoning: “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls: I am the grrreatest actooor [long pause] that ever existed.” Of course, he’s asking for it — by play’s end, after throwing in an impromptu soliloquy from Richard III, the fellow will have suffered countless indignities entirely of his own making.
In fact, the entire event is devoted to stories chronicling the gruesome deaths of (mostly) children — likewise of their own making, so to speak — for not obeying the rules. These sadistic cautionary tales, infused with a kind of Baptist morality, are lifted from Heinrich Hoffman’s Struwwelpeter. Meanwhile, the production’s comic tone turns the cautions on their head, indicting the rule-makers with a sneer while gleefully relishing in the punishments of the rule-breakers. Compelled to explain the point of it all, the narrator warns us to look at what we’ve hidden beneath the floorboards — leaving us with some responsibility for the world’s terrors, and a mockery thereof. Imagine a gargoyle calling you a baby killer with the rimshot: “Just kidding.”
Conrad, a wonderful stick puppet, is warned by his mother: “That great tailor, he always comes/For nasty boys who suck their thumbs.” And after she’s gone, and the digit settles on his tongue, in bursts “the long legg’d scissor man.” Snip snip. Off come the thumbs, leaving poor Conrad to bleed to death on the stage. Blending Hoffman with the panto, Victorian melodrama and Monty Python, almost all the stories end with the refrain: “Dead! . . . Dead!. . . Dead!” (in which the audience is invited to participate).
Three roving musicans (the Tiger Lilies) appear in the set’s crooks and crannies, posing like a trio of morticians and accompanying the tales on drums (Adrian Huge), string bass (Adrian Stout, bearing a striking resemblance to both Salvador Dali and Hoffman himself) and a bright-green accordion — played by composer Martyn Jacques, bespectacled, stooping like an aging headmaster and crooning in an eerie falsetto, often muffling the lyrics to songs that sound like a cross between Kurt Weill and Armenian folk tunes.
Indeed, the best reason to see this show may be its display of tonality, and of stagecraft as impeccable as you’re likely to find, from puppetry to vaudeville to cabaret and back again, all under a singularly macabre umbrella. Every gesture, stage picture and joke is perfectly placed and timed under Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch’s co-direction. Crouch and Gilmour’s set starts as a mock proscenium (red curtain), a kind of off-kilter cardboard cutout. Swiftly it unfolds, revealing unexpected dimensions — not unlike the show itself — and surprise entrances and trap doors through which pass monsters of the mind.
SHOCKHEADED PETER | Presented by CULTURAL INDUSTRY PROJECT/WEST YORKSHIRE PLAYHOUSE and LYRIC THEATRE HAMMERSMITH | Created by
JULIAN BLEACH, ANTHONY CAIRNS, GRAEME GILMOUR, TAMZIN GRIFFIN
and JO POCOCK | At UCLA, RALPH FREUD PLAYHOUSE | Through May 28