Despite the fact that I tend to review theatre that uses mixed media and digital technologies, and therefore requires lighting design closer to that of a cinema, I am still very rusty at writing completely in the dark. I’ve deciphered my scribbles as best I can to review this production, one that combines 2D animated projections with Brechtian-ish playful theatre, but ultimately my thoughts on 1927’s The Animals and Children Took to the Streets came forth without the notebook.
As the lights dimmed, a soft, tinkling piano played, and a voice welcomed us the anachronistic, unspecified world of a city and its Bayou. The problem that pervades the Bayou is the Bayou itself: a neglected housing block infested with cockroaches and impossibly disgusting people and creatures, and with nowhere for droves and gangs of children to live and play. Multiple lives converge in the Bayou: the gossiping trilling neighbours (who serve as our chorus), the Caretaker who has saved for seven years to move out of the Bayou, pirate Zelda and her animated crew of pirate children, and middle-class charity workers Agnes and little Evie Eaves (played as an animated character) who have come to save these children.
Bourgeois Agnes Eaves firmly believes that the children of the Bayou simply need a little encouragement, love, and a chance to play with dried macaroni and PVA glue (the children, in a surreal animated swarm, quickly trample her and bury her in her precious pasta). The Caretaker is smitten by this woman and her determination. Meanwhile Pirate Zelda firmly believes that she and the other children must reclaim what the other children outside the Bayou have: green, clean, open spaces to play. They take it upon themselves to riot in the green, clean open space they envy, as their form of protest. Instead, the children are rounded up by the mayor (who has a 360-degree view of his city from his skyscraper, with the Bayou in his blind spot). Little Evie Eaves is taken too, and when Agnes is tangled in the cold bureaucratic system that refuses to help her, it is up to the Caretaker to intervene and save the day.
On paper, this sounds like a dark, dreary, straightforward piece commenting on neighbourhood gentrification, community displacement, and poverty, but the fun, satiric surreal style is what makes the plot effective. 1927 tells this story through a mixture of live action and animation, projected onto three screens placed in a curved shape on the Lyric Hammersmith proscenium stage. These three panels are the only suggestion of a ‘graphic novel’ that the production provides. This isn’t a bad thing, just a misrepresentation of the piece in the advertising.
I’d describe it more as Brecht-meets-cartoony-Punch and Judy-puppetry, in which the human performers are Russian-ish white-faced puppets, thrown into the animated world of the Bayou and its children. The story is set to the rhythm of tinkling piano that runs throughout; the three tall panelled screens each have one curtained window used to create multiple places, and people in motion. Characters announce their stage directions as actions, and there is a delightful moment in which one woman cries for help simply by opening her mouth as animated words spill out. The illusions created are endearing and charming in their simplicity. Rather than trying to create the spectacular through digital technology alone, the craft comes from the balance of playful, exaggerated human acting with the absurdities conjured into life onscreen. The actors are incredible in their ability to bring distinct characterizations – the Caretaker especially stands out with his permanent pout, electrocuted-style hair and his general air of ennui.
The play’s short run-time, and the fact that it took a long while for the story to emerge, made it difficult for me to feel like we had truly ever got into the plot and its characters, or the full extent of their political points. While the production is entirely enjoyable, I still feel slightly unsatisfied by it. The true Brechtian part of the production – and probably its most poignant, tantalising glimpse of what else this play could do – comes with the Caretaker presenting two options for the ending. He encourages the audience to choose the crossroads of the story, guiding the Caretaker with cheers and boos towards either the ‘realist’ or ‘idealist’ path (we wanted something idealist). But the Caretaker scurries down the realist road despite our wishes. The satire packed its strongest punch here, while still being playful. It offers a smart, tantalising demonstration of the artistic and political potential of 1927’s mixed media approach.
The Animals and Children Took to the Streets is on at Lyric Hammersmith Theatre till 16th March. More info here.