Kneehigh’s latest show, The Tin Drum, is an adaptation of the 1959 Günter Grass novel of the same name about a small boy named Oskar resolutely refusing to grow up in Nazi Germany. The performance I saw started rather unusually: Tom Morris, artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic, and Mike Shepherd, director of the show, came on stage to warn us that the production had been experiencing lighting problems and to apologise in advance for any sudden faults. In the end, the show managed to get away with just one hand-held light not working – no dramatic blackouts, no surprises. It was almost a shame, for while The Tin Drum is undeniably skilful, and contains some lovely moments, it really could use some excitement.
Shepherd’s production is full of spectacle. Made by the same creative team as Kneehigh’s Dead Dog in a Suitcase, it’s packed with explosions and big sets, and uses lighting almost reminiscent of a stadium concert. But none of this really breaks through to connect with the audience; I never felt hooked or invested, just mildly curious. Sometimes, this sense of alienation almost works for the play – it lends Oskar, for example, who appears as a puppet throughout, watching the adults from the sidelines with bemusement, an intriguing detachment. During the dramatic and emotional climaxes, however, Shepherd’s grand theatrical gestures begin to feel rather empty.
With almost all of the play being sung, and only the occasional section of spoken dialogue, the music should hook into the audience’s emotions, but most of the time it only serves to push us further away. There are moments of genius – chanting and weird alien sounds, plus a beautiful piece of a cappella, choral-inspired music. Most of Charles Hazlewood’s score sits indistinctly between pop, opera and musical theatre, though, and although the singing itself is brilliant (with Damon Daunno providing an incredible falsetto), it often feels like too many words have been shoved into repetitive and unoriginal melodies.
What’s more, Shepherd’s cast are constantly whipping out hand-held mics to belt out their songs. At first, this just seems a little unneeded; the Old Vic is not that big, nor is the music that loud. Then, for a little while, the mics, the stadium lighting, and the Madonna/Lady Gaga-esque Hitler figure seem to be coming together as some kind of attack on celebrity icons, but a clear message behind it never coalesces.
This random use of pop star tropes fits with a plot that doesn’t know where it’s going. Much of the feeling of disconnect probably stems from the play’s lack of structure; rather than having a driving force, it’s more episodic – a case of just one thing happening after another. This not only makes it difficult to feel invested, but also results in jarring changes of tone – a scene of a traumatic and deadly attack on a post office is swiftly followed by a cheery tune about a new shop assistant, with apparently no connection to what had happened before.
In previous shows, one of Kneehigh’s greatest strengths has been the ability to combine poignancy and ridiculousness into a single weave, to make you laugh while you cry. Here, it just seems odd. The Tin Drum has successful moments of both mysterious uncanniness and warm familial storytelling, but often settles into an unhappy medium, where we are told exactly what is happening, but still feel separated from it.
And that’s the real tragedy of the show – there are shreds in there of a production I could love, but only that. The movement sequences, as ever, are beautiful, and there are also some moments of real innovation. I especially loved the playing with scale; a scene in which Rina Fatania’s straight-talking grandmother cooks a potato, while a miniaturised police chase takes place behind her, is a definite highlight.
Oskar himself is a fantastic character too, acerbic and professorly but simultaneously childlike and curious, and he is wonderfully voiced by Bettrys Jones throughout. The storyline he follows is a little hollow, however, with the references to Nazism often so peripheral to the plot that the ending feels unearned. Surprisingly, for someone who much prefers adventure stories to family dramas, I wish the play focused instead on the love triangle between Oskar’s parents, which, unlike the Nazi drama at the forefront of the play, feels original and interesting.
Overall, The Tin Drum feels aimless, wandering from one plot point to another without ever knowing exactly where it’s headed, never allowing the audience to invest. At one point, Oskar’s grandmother tells him that “everything in your story has meaning.” It’s just a shame that’s not true.
The Tin Drum is at Bristol Old Vic until November 18th. For more details, click here.