Disjointed, intense and unsettling, Kneehigh’s new show is a dark dose of theatrical Marmite. It takes Günter Grass’s classic 1959 novel of the same name and boils it down into a rich but decidedly peculiar exploration of individualism, war and protest.
Grass’s book draws on his own experiences living in the Rhineland before and during WWII. But there’s nothing straightforwardly historical about it. It’s a fevered swirl, a grotesque, magical response to growing up in an impossible climate. Written by Carl Grose, Kneehigh’s musical adaptation artfully cuts the story loose from its original setting. There are no dancing Nazis, there’s no camp military iconography. Thank God, because this is no time to flirt with the aesthetics of fascism.
Instead, it has an intriguing atmosphere that’s a bit new wave-era ‘Top of the Pops’ and a bit Weimar cabaret. Performers break scenes to sing soul-baring torch songs with a synth-pop accompaniment, or whirl across the stage in a mass of waltzing, voguing energy.
At the heart of this electric storm is Oskar, a small boy played by a very, very disturbing puppet. Trapped in a small-minded environment where he’s expected to become a shopkeeper, he rebels by deciding to stay the size of a three-year-old. He plays a tin drum in an ambiguous act of protest, spurred on by his grandmother and her magical vagina (I think – she’s forever producing useful items from beneath her voluminous skirts).
The rest of the plot is too complicated to go into, but somehow, this teeming stage gives a logic to every surreal plot twist. When Oskar plays his drum, the world around him warps out of shape, captured by composer Charles Hazlewood’s dense ripple of sound. And the growing devastation around him is conjured using tiny puppets, making it small compared to his titanic ego.
Kneehigh’s show is operatic in scale and unsettling in momentum. Not everyone will like it, but it demands to be heard.