nytheatre.com review by Jeffrey Lewonczyk
February 19, 2005
The little boy who had his thumbs cut off because he couldn't stop sucking them. The little girl who played with matches and burned herself to death. The misbehaving bully who got bit by a rabid dog and died. These sorry creatures could be YOU, if you don't change your ways.
Shockheaded Peter, a successful British import which returns to New York after appearing at the New Victory in 1999, is a cautionary revue for twisted children, a how-to-be-good guide that could have been written by Edward Gorey in the throes of a morphine binge. Stories of terrible things happening to mischievous children are interspersed with the ongoing tale of a forlorn couple who buried their monstrous baby—a boy with unmanageable hair and foot-long fingernails—beneath the floorboards, an act of weakness that begins to transform them for the worse…
Many elements are essential to this unholy stew. The primary ingredient is Struweelpeter, a collection of darkly didactic poems for children written in German in 1845 by one Heinrich Hoffman that provides this musical with its ominous, off-kilter libretto. Equally important, though, is the participation of the Tiger Lillies, a notorious cult cabaret trio led by the creepy falsetto of ringleader Martyn Jacques and abetted by bassist Adrian Stout and drummer Adrian Huge. Their songs—which would be equally at home coming from a senile grandmother's decaying music box or the dim stage of a seedy Weimar cabaret—provide the show with a unifying auditory identity that slightly tweaks the unforgiving tone of the original poems into something funnier and more theatrical.
On the optical end, the acting and design are stunning. The stage-within-a-stage, with its working doors and windows that conceal all kinds of wonders and horrors, is a masterpiece of engineering, as are the various puppets (a stork, some bunnies, some things I can't even describe) that populate it (all courtesy of production designers Julian Crouch and Graeme Gilmour). As the greasy, self-important master of ceremonies, Julian Bleach turns in one of the most consistently hysterical performances I've seen in years, all the way from his opening declaration that he is “the greatest actor who ever existed” all the way to his clumsy attempt to impart a closing moral while wearing one of the most outlandish costumes ever constructed. (The ripely squalid costumes are by Kevin Pollard.) The rest of the cast is equally sharp on the physical and vocal fronts, though they don't get quite the same opportunity to show off.
With its melodramatic gestures, its toy-theatre set, and its 19th-century source material, Shockheaded Peter is a sinister pageant of Victoriana—not only in terms of its visual and theatrical elements, but also its moralism, its notions of psychology, and its attitude towards children. Though everything in the production (directed by Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott) is presented with a knowing wink, it hints at the black depths of terror the world of 150 years ago offered anyone unfortunate enough to be born young.
My qualm with the Shockheaded Peter is that, with just a little less winking and hinting, it could be so much more than the deviously clever entertainment that it is. Poking through the absurdities and self-conscious stagecraft—like the freakishly overgrown fingernails of its title character—is a truly mesmerizing parable about the horrors of childhood, and the universality they gain as they bleed into the horrors of adulthood. But the cautionary fables don't always gel with the occasionally clumsy frame story surrounding it, and certain production numbers performed straight, without stagecraft—the strangely moving “Flying Robert” in particular—leave you longing to see them visually tied together with the others—and, in turn, tied together all around, into something greater than the sum of its parts. Though the production itself is as polished as any show could ever hope to be, the writing and conception still feel like they're still a draft or two away from achieving their full potential.
But when you laugh as hard at a show as I laughed at this one, perhaps it's a bit Victorian to expect something more edifying. Lovers of music, movement, comedy, and spectacle will be thoroughly entertained—and perhaps that's moral enough for one story.