BWW Review: THE ANIMALS AND CHILDREN TOOK TO THE STREETS, Nuffield Southampton Theatres
They'd throw in some cabaret, some clever animation, a few moments of dark humour, plenty of troubled and eerie characters, and a dash of mime for good measure.
What you'd end up with, I am sure, is something like 1927's The Animals and Children Took To the Streets.
Written and directed by Suzanne Andrade, this production twists together retro imagery and animation with cabaret and mime for some elegantly sinister storytelling.
As the lights dim, we are transported to the sinister outskirts of the city; to the Bayou Mansions on Red Herring Street, where the curtains twitch, perverts lurk, and children run riot. It's a grim place, covered in cockroaches and mould. As the unscrupulous shopkeeper Mrs Villicar puts it, "If you are born in the Bayou, you die in the Bayou".
There is no way out for the forgotten families in this derelict and grizzly place, and no hope for the feral children, who rise up, demanding to take what the prosperous city has for their own.
Agnes Eaves and her innocent daughter, Evie, move into Bayou Mansions in a bid to tame each wild child with bedtime stories and art classes filled with PVA glue and pasta shapes. But when Evie gets mixed up in the Mayor's plans to control the unruly, it is up to a rather forlorn and ever-haunted Caretaker to save the day; but at a cost.
From the very opening moments, you will realise that this show is unlike any other you will have seen. The stage is simply a blank canvas, brought to life with clever animation and projection. The three actors - for it's a very small cast indeed - blend in seamlessly with the shapes and images that surround them. They are drenched in two-dimensional rainstorms, sleep in upright beds, and are sucked into nightmarish vortexes.
With their white painted faces and retro black, red and gold costumes, the cast could have sprung straight from the pages of a graphic novel or vintage newspaper cartoon.
This is a very clever, multi-layered performance. As well as the images and staging, the production combines spoken voice, recorded monologue and simple piano accompaniment to give a true cabaret effect which is fringed with melancholy. You can almost smell the damp and despair.
It is The Caretaker who steals the show as the unsuspecting tragic hero of the production. His thoughts are portrayed through a pre-recorded voice (James Addie), and he is otherwise completely mute. He cuts a lonely, Edward Scissorhands-like figure, dreaming of a life outside the Bayou Mansions and longing after the lovely Agnes Eaves.
The fact that we can hear his internal monologue means that he is the character we sympathise the most with, and he makes us laugh with his honest and gloomy outlook - opting for realism, rather than idealism.
It's a testament to the onstage trio that each role is captivating and entertaining in its own right. The old-school style means that we can focus on the character rather than the actor beneath the make-up; it feels less like a performance on stage by actors, and more like an almost black-and-white film, or illustrations brought to life.
Genevieve Dunne, Felicity Sparks and Rowena Lennon morph from disgruntled spinsters in the Bayou Mansions, into the Caretaker, Agnes and Mrs Villicar with ease. They give the impression that there are at least twice the number of cast members than we actually see on stage.
The staging itself is dark and technically brilliant. Transitions are smooth, and there is no discord between what is recorded and what is 'live'. Paul Barritt's animation, film and design, Lillian Henley's music, and Sarah Munro and Esme Appleton's costumes all come together to create a dark fairy tale reminiscent of the original Grimm stories, rather than the sugar-coated adaptations on screen today.
There is also an element of this production that comments on current affairs. The Animals and Children tackles austerity, rebellion and public unrest in a roundabout, humorous way; there's an edge to the comedy. The solution for calming the children is bittersweet: gentrification has made the rich richer and the poor poorer, and there is no way out for those born into squalid conditions.
Like any good fairy tale or comic, there's a realistic undertone to the spectacle in front of us, and a lesson to be learned.
Perhaps not for all tastes, it experiments and isn't afraid to celebrate the strange and take the path less traveled. Indeed, it travels right along Red Herring Street, to the bedraggled Bayou Mansions, and back again.