It’s rather tricky to even attempt to categorize Kneehigh’s new show, a reworking of the Gunther Grass novel The Tin Drum. Part storytelling extravaganza, part sci-fi gig and part modern opera on acid, this piece veritably barrels through the auditorium, spitting in our faces and violently demanding we pay attention.
As ever, Kneehigh’s traditional style is based around a storytelling atmosphere in a way that captures the same ‘feeling’ as the original – although many of the leitmotifs of the original do make their way into this version. A moth flutters around puppet Oskar’s head, Anna Bronski’s voluminous skirts play a large part in props concealment and popping candy is paralleled with Oskar’s falling in love with touching improbability; but there is a hunger to the atmosphere surrounding the story that is the main, pulsing drive. The whole cast are astonishing (with Beverly Rudd as a standout, multi-rolling around the stage with hilarious ease) with a type of barrelling, extraordinary motion guiding the audience through the twisted nature of the piece.
Gunther Grass’s novel deals with the ‘ordinary’ German’s complicity with the Nazi regime, shown through the eyes of Oskar, a child who decided not to grow once he hit three years old. So far, so simple, but Kneehigh’s version defies definition. Yes, there is confusion, yes there is chaos, but it’s the type of chaos that appears at your first, ‘grown-up’ gig, a glorious chaos that pulses with the bass through your bones. The wonder in this show is that it’s not just happening onstage, it spills into the auditorium – we feel the deep rumble of the synth in the beating of our blood, we feel the excitement of the crowd in the wind blowing over our hair while a female, white-wigged Hitler screams a rock number, backlight on the top of neon platform.
However, the Tin Drum itself plays a surprisingly little role in this particular version – as does Oskar himself. It is one of those rare moments where the atmosphere and the message of the show are so powerful that they overpower the characters within it. Nandi Bhebhe as Agnes Bronski, Damon Daunno as Jan and Rina Fatania as Anna Bronski are all wonderful, but there is a very odd sense of style over substance. All the characters seemed plot devices to communicate the general feeling of anarchy, war disillusionment etc; devices to communicate a message rather than living, breathing human beings. Still, Kneehigh must be commended for the vitality and originality of their interpretation – if you like your theatre laced with LSD, headbanging to bass in the corner and wearing a 1930’s shift dress, this one’s for you.