The Tin Drum by Kneehigh Theatre at West Yorkshire Playhouse, reviewed by Lucy Meredith…
Before I start I am coming from the perspective of a massive Kneehigh fan with no prior knowledge of the Tin Drum. I first saw Kneehigh in 2003 when they came to Leeds with ‘The Wooden Frock’ and from that minute I was blown away by their theatrical storytelling, and their ingenious use of props and sets to transform a theatre space into another world. Very few companies have had such an effect on me and the way I work as a performer in my own practise and it was like an epiphany.
So I was incredibly excited to see the Tin Drum and I was not disappointed, in fact I almost don’t know where to start with this review as it has been difficult to find the words to describe it. So I’m just going to let it pour out. The piece itself was an explosive all-encompassing force of nature!
It was mesmerising from start to finish, I didn’t once get that ‘I’m aware I’m watching performers sing a story at me’ feeling that you get with some musical productions. The poetic dialogue just flowed so naturally that it really did transport you into the madness of Oskar’s world.
To backtrack a little for those who don’t know the story Oskar the protagonist of the piece who tells his story from the conception of his own mother onwards. Oskar, by the age of three already disillusioned by mankind, decides to stop growing and remain as a child (having not read the book or seen the film my grasp of the nuances of the full story may have passed me by but it was enough to blow my mind!) In this production Oskar is a puppet controlled and vocalised by many of the ensemble cast which helps to give him his ethereal quality.
When you first meet Oskar he is still in the womb and I really enjoyed the simplicity and beauty of the birthing scene as he is turned in air by the deft puppeteers. He is slightly unnerving looking with alien-like eyes and although a child also has the look of an old man in some way. There puppetry is very clever and though he is small he totally commands the attention and focus of the stage.
The staging reminded me of me of ‘Streetcar named Desire’ New Orleans with large French looking windows and balcony with the feel of faded opulence with a shifting stairway moved by the cast.
Every element of the show worked seamlessly together to create a living world which was really overwhelming at times. To be honest thinking about it is still a bit overwhelming as I try to find other terms for ‘mind blowing’ (and overwhelming!)
The choreography was tight and seamlessly moved from ballroom dancing into ensemble sequences involving the whole cast who are a ridiculously talented bunch who were astounding and faultless in every aspect of their movement and delivery. Many playing multiple characters such as the hilarious police and the loveable toymaker.
The singing in this production was superb particularly Jan Bronski played by Damon Daunno. What a voice! There were moments when I looked around to see the audience just open mouthed transfixed by his singing. The musical score itself was more than a soundtrack it was an incredibly powerful soundscape using many genres of music and sound to create a multifaceted landscape which echoed the surreal, funny, disturbing and sometimes terrifying themes within the piece. It felt like being caught in waves on a stormy sea with moments of calmness to brutality and back again. As an audience member I felt engulfed in the world it created and it was amazing.
Highlights…….oh my, so many the simplicity and effectiveness of props like the floating butterflies on wire sticks, the goose and paper chain dolls. The first time Oskar let out his chilling scream which broke all the windows of the set was amazing. The comical devil puppet…
There were unnervingly historical parallels between Nazi Germany portrayed in the piece and what is happening in politics today. To say the book was written in 1959 it is very disturbing how relevant it all still seems. Especially seeing the soft, laughable character of Alfred Matzerath turn from the mild mannered greengrocer into a Nazi general. How easily these things can happen is truly frightening.
The Tin Drum certainly puts you through the emotional mincer. You feel so involved in its world, one minute laughing and gasping, and then comes the execution scene. It was horrendous, powerful and incredibly moving; in the background were the silhouettes of hanging bodies as the characters were executed one by one. It was shocking and beautiful and certainly left me in tears.
I think I am still trying to process the whole thing as it is such a big topic that certainly left me with plenty to think about. Well done Kneehigh for another beautiful and skilfully created stunning piece of theatre.