To attempt a stage adaptation of Gunter Grass’s rich and complex novel ‘The Tin Drum’ is an ambitious undertaking but Kneehigh are rarely short of ambition. The result is tender and life affirming not least because of the puppet Oskar who is a study in melancholy and malevolence.
Naomi Dawson’s design seems to be leeching out of the walls of Shoreditch Town Hall, a building of elegant and slightly decaying grandeur, and the space is stunningly lit by Malcolm Rippeth. The setting is non-specific: ‘this could be any war’ and the Nazi party of the novel becomes ‘The Order’. There are many contemporary resonances and references visually and sonically but essentially this still feels deeply connected to the mid twentieth century.
The narrative unfolds almost exclusively through a series of songs that have impressive clarity and drive if not stylistic consistency. The story focuses on Oskar’s family and in particular his Mother and two father figures: Alfred and Jan. It is a joy to see such a tight ensemble, the actors are strong vocally and physically disciplined but never lose sense of the idiosyncratic characters they are portraying. The people of this world are comic, peculiar and eminently recognisable: silent movie comedy cops, a moustachioed arsonist (Patrycja Kujawska) and a grandmother with whole continents under her skirts (brilliantly played by Rina Fatania). There is the kind of attention to detail that is the hallmark of Kneehigh’s work. The work feels effortless and free but is precisely wrought. I was struck by the simple and jolly Alfred played by Les Bubb: a terrific portrayal of an ordinary man who is seduced by the black witch and The Order’s call to fascism.
Sarah Wright’s puppetry work is sensitive: the interplay between the puppet Oskar and the actors playing the other characters is natural and compelling. The voice of Oskar is spoken by various members of the ensemble but always communicates with great clarity. There is potential for confusion here but it doesn’t happen. Just occasionally the feet of this bunraku style puppet need to be anchored and given life to add an extra layer of expression but Oskar’s glittering black eyes and innocent capacity for wreaking chaos is utterly compelling. There is a beautiful sequence where he falls in love with Maria and they enjoy fizz candy. Here the sensuality and development of Oskar into adult experience is cleverly handled.
At one point Oskar stands in front of a tableau of his family states that although he has nothing ‘he has all he needs’. It is a shame that the adaptation stops at a happy ending but excises the post war part of Grass’s novel. This was a terrifically enjoyable piece of theatre but somehow stopped short of the emotional punch that I remember the novel delivering.
Writer Carl Grose
Music Charles Hazlewood
Director Mike Shepherd
Designer Naomi Dawson
Lighting Designer Malcolm Rippeth
Puppet Director Sarah Wright
Choreographer Etta Murfitt
Sound Designer Ian Davies
Company Nandi Bhebhe, Les Bubb, Dom Coyote, Damon Daunno, Rina Fatania, Ross Hughes, Angela Hardie, Bettrys Jones, Patrycja Kujawska, Alex Lupo, Beverly Rudd, Ruth Wall, Sarah Wright