Sometimes a work is as much about a place as the people who inhabit it; 1927’s dazzling play is soaked in the invented world of the Bayou, a timeless, placeless, vertical slum that mangles and splices every cliché of poverty, criminality and despair into a darkly satirical Gormenghast of flickering, illustrated projection and blackest cabaret.
The stage is reimagined as a cross between a sideshow facade and a cinema screen, the actors showmen who present their work as a real-world freak show; the Bayou dances to the tune of three-part harmonies, sung by a chorus of head-scarved housewives, while enveloping its characters in projected surrounds that pan, green screen and open out into frame-breaking 3D. Well before the appearance of the plot proper, we are initiated into a distinctive style of wit where rhymes are rolled around and relished, metaphor as simultaneously native and artificial as the ladies’ gleefully cut-glass accents.
Agnes Eaves (Esme Appleton) comes to the Bayou mansions motivated by the missionary need to help its children, her red defensive uniform of cleanliness and prettiness accessorised by a pristine daughter, a projected, mute changeling that peppers blinking obedience with impish tricks. Agnes’ presence is felt most deeply by the watchful caretaker (Suzanne Andrade), whose introspection is so deep that it can only be conveyed by recorded soliloquy casting a spell of ennui over an animated stage at his every appearance. As Agnes’ collage attempts to inspire young minds engulf her flat in a wasps’ nest of lentils, pasta and PVA glue, her alter ego Zelda (also Esme Appleton) plots revolution, combining reasonable demands for education with an anarchic, x-box craving spirit that stirs her infant co-conspirators up like so much desert sand.
Penned (and drawn, and sung) before the London riots, this play feels especially relevant for its characterisation of children as a chaotic, unindividualised mass – drawn with mid-century, St Trinian’s nostalgia, they invade a pristine park, with politically motivated repercussions rather stronger than failed school surveillance by hapless policeman. The Big Society gets a drubbing in a portrayal of a hospital overseen by volunteers and Girl Guides, as do high rail fares; where the film Amelie uses an armoury of quirky nostalgia to construct an imaginary Paris, 1927 use it to disassemble any idea of a cohesive city, both socially and politically, deconstructing the mythos of golden ages past that right-wingers hark back to.
Relying heavily on aesthetic and atmosphere, it is easy to see why this play has had such success touring internationally. Where stylish placelessness in theatre can be frustrating, the organic originality of the plot makes its everywhere-land universally biting, with topical references giving us the same jarring frisson as pantomime dames, or spotting a zipper in a po-faced costume drama. Primly naughty, unified multi-multi-media, vaguely specific; 1927 corral an infestation of contradictions and teeming ideas into a mansion that oozes with brilliant life.