They’re all staring. Pints lowered, stools scraped backward, beady eyes squinting, copious scraggy dogs curling their lips into snarls. The door of The Woodsman swings closed behind us. We gulp in unison. Pale faced, sweat-soaked, quivering hands wrapped round notepads – just two jumped-up theatre reviewers who’ve never done an honest day’s work in our lives. We’re clearly not welcome here. The landlord has frozen mid-way through some vigorous tankard-polishing and his long moustache twitches in disdain.
We should leave, but we don’t. We’re not going back out there, into the wild rolling wastes of Highgate, where the temperature’s low and the house prices soaring sky-high. There’s a pig-kicker on the loose, and we’ve barely escaped with our lives from theatre company Kill The Beast’s brilliant London debut at Jackson’s Lane Theatre: a full-blooded, sharp-fanged retelling of Tom Baker’s twisted novelette The Boy Who Kicked Pigs, about murder and mayhem in deepest, darkest Kent.
Smiling nervously, shaking the rain-drops from our coats, ordering a pair of ales from the bar and slumping into a snug that smells of mouldering dart-boards, we sit down to talk about what we’ve seen. Speaking in half-whispers into a whirring Dictaphone…
Stewart Pringle: The first thing that occurred to me was how heavily influenced it was by quite a lot of different things. Just to get them all out there – The League of Gentleman, The Penny Dreadfuls and very much 1927’s The Animals and Children Took to the Streets. And, obviously, Tim Burton and all of that pop gothic. I thought that could be a negative thing at first. I was worried that those influences would be worn so heavily that we wouldn’t find an original voice there. But, actually, I didn’t find that to be a problem.
Tom Wicker: I agree. And I think that possibly the original voice was in the incredibly creative choreography. I felt that what kept it together was the fluidity of the movement; that poor school of acting use of very few props to create an entire world. And a lot of that was down to a play with angles and shadows.
SP: They did that very well, particularly at the end with the tree branches in the title character Robert’s den. They’ve taken the idea of Expressionistic horror cinema – you know, with Robert’s surname being Caligari and the style of illustration on the projected backdrops – and really run with it.
TW: That James Whale Frankenstein look, with exaggerated and distorted perspectives.
SP: Yes, exactly, and Nosferatu, Vampyr and things like that – European gothic of the 1920s and 30’s, which was a really nice fit.
TW: What worked well was just how much care went into the vignettes that made up the picture story. I loved the neighbours gossiping about Robert’s cleaning of the streets after the kicked piggy bank/spilled fish disaster.
SP: I did think that was the bit that was most heavily influenced by The Animals and Children Took to the Streets, with its mixture of projected, slightly Belville Rendezvous-style backdrops with rhythmic movement, actions, words and a cappella. But again I felt they did something fresh with it. It had its own sense of humour, which felt really reflective of the heritage of British comedy.
TW: Yes, what I liked about the beautiful, monochrome look of the production was its displacement of time. It felt almost as though someone had slaughtered the cast of a bucolic Hovis ad, resurrected them and put them on stage.
SP: Absolutely. And I think they’d taken that slightly faded crapness of Britain, shit Britain essentially, and run with it very nicely, from the local paper onwards.
TW: Yes, and emphasised by the backdrops, which had that Aardman Animations element of tiny things happening that you almost miss, like the printer in the decrepit newsroom slowly edging away from the wall.
SP: The backdrops were brilliant, actually. At first I thought they were computer generated but then I realised they were actually beautifully rendered miniature models.
TW: They were a combination of model work and animation, which I think reflected nicely the exaggerated style of the performances as well – that idea of the real world pulled, sometimes grotesquely, out of shape. I thought the cast were brilliant. They were so versatile, vocally, and the way that they used their bodies to portray character was so good and well realised.
SP: It felt like a very mature piece of work. I also liked the way it was structured basically as a sketch show. They could have been sketches at the Edinburgh Fringe Comedy revue, and really good, funny ones. They had punch lines and blackouts in between scenes. It meant you had a constant sense of reinvention, of new ideas being plugged in.
TW: The League of Gentleman stripped back to its Edinburgh roots, or even a TV show like Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. It had that same sense of pastiche born out of affection rather than sneering at the material.
SP: Yeah, enjoying the crapness of that homegrown aesthetic.
A thick-set barmaid stomps over to dump two more pints in front of us. Alcohol sloshes on to the table. ‘Pork scratchings?’ she sneers. We decline, nervously.
SP: Maybe we should talk less loudly?
TW: Definitely. Anyway… what a wonderful way to open the show, by the way, on what seems like a bloodcurdling, dramatic moment – the scream – and then to undercut that immediately by playfully juxtaposing the mundane with horror tropes. I thought you could hear Tom Baker’s voice really strongly throughout the elements they adapted into the script. Even the pig, Trevor, sounded like him!
SP: I got the feeling that they maybe wanted Tom Baker to voice that? It would have made sense, that rich, chestnut tone. The whole production reflects that odd place he occupies in British culture, in that he is much loved and an institution, but has always had that subversive edge to him. He has a dark, slightly mordant humour that comes through even in Doctor Who.
TW: He has this baroque Britishness that occupies a weird slipstream parallel to whatever else he’s doing, whether it’s a voiceover or a walk-on part on screen. And what he’s very good at doing is digging down into that childish fascination with death and gore, which never leaves us. It just turns into our devouring headlines instead. I thought that tied the whole thing nicely together, the rat at the end gorging on blood and guts following on from the news reports of the fireball on the motorway.
SP: And there’s a real anger in the middle of it, in building a character as vicious and misanthropic as a boy who kicks pigs. He is a total bundle of adolescent boyish cruelty, but by making him the centrepiece and not really offering any other moral alternatives he becomes something more.
TW: Yes, you never see his parents, do you? There are voices from downstairs, but he and his sister are children who have run wild simply because there is no other option.
SP: They exist in a world that is so dull, their ultra violence response to it feels like the only one they could have. And instead of the dystopia of, say, A Clockwork Orange, here you have the bleakness of suburban existence.
TW: It’s not very far from some fairly Swiftian satire, where you don’t have the safety net of a better world to aim for. The more you push, you just get more guts. Robert isn’t even a rebel with a cause. The only moment of unity between him and his sister is their resigned mutual grumble of ‘mum’ when she calls from off-stage. There’s nothing (but pigs) to kick against. Everything is just treated as a given.
SP: I only know the book vaguely, and read it years ago, so don’t know how much they’ve deviated from it – presumably quite a lot in terms of the style – but I think they’ve really embraced those grim hints in it and found something that is quite modern.
TW: But it didn’t go for easy laughs, by poking fun at fads and consumerism and so on. It dug more deeply into that sense of what we’re capable of when we’re bored and have no other outlet. One of the bleakest visuals, to me, was the news room with all of the multiple time-zone clocks that all said the same time – Kent time. Kent is the world as far as this story is concerned. It’s unremittingly bleak and boring.
SP: That sense of kicking against the pricks of provinciality and the tedium of that was really nicely expressed. I think there’s something so inherently brilliant about the image of the boy who kicks pigs specifically. He’s not just randomly violent; he’s fixated on something with repetitive acts of cruelty. There’s something brilliantly existential about that.
TW: And Trevor is a piggy bank! He’s not just any pig. It’s one of the first things given to children to teach them how to be grown-up: start saving money, be responsible. So, already, you have that terrible, monotonous sense of what being an adult is all about. And Robert smashes it to pieces.
SP: One thing I liked about the motiveless malice, and something the play kept returning to, was deterministic violence – a chain of violence. Robert deconstructs the for-sale and exchange ads in the newspapers and works out what each individual seller’s weaknesses are. If you find the right pressure points in the world you can set off a chain reaction. The whole play is filled with chain reactions, from the newspaper all the way to the car pile-up. It’s about violence begetting violence.
TW: Even serial-killing children aren’t really in charge of their own serial killing! And in the end, even what happens to Robert is accidental. There is no safe space to be a child anymore, at least in this play.
My only issue with the piece was that, while the vignettes were great in their own right, collectively they contributed to a play that sometimes felt too long. At times, the production seemed too in love with its concept. In a way, that’s still a compliment, because Kill the Beast clearly has an overabundance of material. But the episode on the beach with the shark and the randy lifeguard was a quirk too far. For all of the stereotypes thrown in elsewhere, they still felt part of the same story.
SP: It was in moments like that the show’s roots in, presumably, improvisation showed through. This is a group of performers who clearly work well together and write very well together, but possibly editing is something they need focus on. They’re so full of good ideas, and even that scene on the beach had some cracking jokes, but that was where it started to feel a little wearing. The production may be a quarter of an hour too long.
TW: Nonetheless, coming to see this after quite a long day, I was blindsided by how distinctive the voice was, how great the visuals were and just how playful and dark the entire thing was. It felt like a much more sophisticated piece than I would be expecting from a new company.
SP: Everyone was good. There wasn’t a weak link in it, performance-wise. But I think that David Cumming as the boy himself was just fantastic. His physicality was brilliant and the pure kind of chaos of him was great.
TW: The ability of all of them to morph seamlessly between a cast of vivid grotesques is testament to their ability.
SP: And just in terms of the hit rate of the jokes, it was fantastic. It was incredibly funny, good, subversive humour which shows its roots but acknowledges them and moves on. They haven’t de-fanged it. If anything, they’ve ramped up the grizzliness.
TW: Even if the story sometimes sags, the jokes never do. There’s humour in every sequence. Tom Baker is, I’m sure, hard to please, but you’d hope he would be happy with this. And it goes out with a brilliantly gory, bloody bang.
SP: Um, hello? Can we help you?
The barman’s standing over us, and he doesn’t look happy. He snatches our half-filled tankards from the table. ‘I think it’s about time you we’re off, don’t you?’ Tom switches off the Dictaphone with a click.
We begin to protest, ‘You’re not closing are you?’
‘Maybe we are and maybe we aren’t,’ he replies, gruffly. ‘None of your business. Now be off with you.’
It’s time we were going anyway, but it’s with a sense of trepidation that we leave the snug of The Woodsman and step into the gloom of a North London night. The streetlamps beam hazily through the drizzle, the shadows are deep, and if you listen just right the shrill laughter of that ghoulishly inventive crew from Kill the Beast can still be heard on the breeze.