Shockheaded Peter: Thumb-Sucking Goodness

What happens to naughty little children who don't know how to behave? No, they don't get sent to see Little Women on Broadway, but in the world of Shockheaded Peter they suffer far more gruesome, bloody and delightfully entertaining circumstances.

Back in 1845, German psychologist Heinrich Hoffman was sick of the mamby-pamby little stories that passed for children's books in his day and jotted down a few cautionary tales of the horrible ends met by kiddies who suck their thumbs, won't eat their soup, play with matches and commit other mischievous deeds in a collection titled Struwwelpeter ("Slovenly Peter"). A sort of "tough love" handbook, the gang who put together Shockheaded Peter (The crew of 11 credited with creating the show is made up mostly of the actors, designers and musicians in this production, including Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott who co-directed) have altered the author's intention only slightly and devised a low-budget spectacle utilizing Victorian melodrama, Grand Guignol and grotesque puppetry where it's okay for adults to laugh when bratty kids find their thumbs snipped off, their clothes catching on fire or their fingernails growing to unmanageable lengths because they've been locked in the cellar since birth.

Using a creative absurdity reminiscent of the glory days of Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatre Company, the company slaps on plenty of clown white and broad strokes of make-up to match the over-the-top acting style that makes the evening such juicy merriment. Particularly sleazy fun is provided by Julian Bleach as the bombastically self-important narrator who doesn't bother to conceal his low regard for the audience, all the while demanding their respect. "There is actually a message here if you bother to look beyond the razzle dazzle!" he sneers at the crowd as they laugh at his penny dreadful dramatics.

The ghastly dramatizations are peppered by the presentations of The Tiger Lillies, who supply a grim cabaret of songs with appetite whetting titles such as "The Story of Cruel Frederick", "Johnny Head-In-Air" and "Snip Snip". Backed by Adrian Stout on double bass and Adrian Huge on drums, castrato vocalist (that's what his bio said -- I didn't check) Martyn Jacques plays a glittery green accordion while singing his own distinctively unmusical tunes in a high-pitched voice resembling the sound helium makes when seeping out of a pin-pricked balloon. It's all quite charming, even during the frequent periods where I couldn't understand a damn word he was singing.

Co-directors Crouch and actor Graeme Gilmour are also credited as production designers, so I assume that means they're responsible for humorously foreboding set and wild assortment of puppets. Costume designer Kevin Pollard provides eccentric Victorian garb as well as dress for an unfortunate little pyromaniac which is a special effect in itself.

The 100 minute intermission-less show can drag a bit at times, but there's enough good humor and creative stagecraft to keep the slower moments at a minimum.

Sure, as you may have guessed, Shockheaded Peter is not for everyone. Those who dislike the piece will most likely find it cruel and distasteful. But then, those who love it will also find it cruel and distasteful. As our narrator reminds us, "Sometimes we have to be cruel to be kind. And sometimes we have to be cruel... well, you know... for recreational purposes."


Top photo of Julian Bleach by Joan Marcus
Bottom photo of Tamzin Griffin by Gavin Evans

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From This Author Michael Dale