The Animals and Children Took to the Streets
If you think experimental theatre is for scholars and pedantic critics, think again. London troupe 1927’s sophomore production, The Animals and Children Took to the Streets, mixes drama, music, animation and storytelling into a mesmerizing hybrid as challenging as it is fun.
Set in a desolate tenement building, the play follows the bitter struggles of a handful of characters as they cross paths in a mythical urban landscape of juvenile delinquency, prostitution and shattered dreams. A near-autistic caretaker counts his pennies for a one-way ticket out of his bleak world; a hopeful new tenant and her infant daughter try to unite their callous community around an artistic ideal; an impetuous teenage girl deploys gang vandalism in an attempt at anarchic revolution. Meanwhile, something far more sinister hangs unseen in their midst.
Impoverished tenements are a fertile ground for crime, but also for great art. The show comfortably taps into a rich tradition of gutter melodrama and proletarian tragedy ranging from Dickens to Abraham Cahan. Setting the tone with narrative Weill-like live piano interludes and vivid animated projections inspired by communist propaganda and early twentieth-century vanguards, the play unfolds with tangible charisma and irresistible cynicism.
Yet the tenement drama of the show is more Émile Zola than Will Eisner. Filtered through the wry humour of the narration (at its wriest with actor-director Suzanne Andrade’s magnificent deadpan), the plot loses poignancy, while the characters, mediated by an additional layer of irony and self-awareness, often echo the facile Darwinian commentary of nineteenth-century Naturalism in their simplicity.
But The Animals and Children Took to the Streets is much more than the story it tells. The medium itself is the star of the play, and the spectacle it unleashes never ceases to surprise and captivate. Covered with projections, bare white walls shapeshift into shop fronts, derelict buildings, crowded parks and grimy streets where live actors pet cartoon cats, exchange blows with animated opponents and ride trains across monolithic landscapes. The naïf, caricatural style of Paul Barritt’s sepia-tinged line drawings perfectly matches the clown make-up and minimal costumes of the performers, creating a world of illusion where children steal each other’s heads and dreamers fly through starry skies. You may see the strings, but they are so cleverly adorned they’ll only drag you further into the show.
Drenched in cabaret sarcasm, The Animals and Children Took to the Streets achieves with elegant spareness an ingenious, uncompromising balance between innovation and entertainment. Grab whatever opportunity you have to see 1927 in action before the acclaimed ensemble set out on yet another international tour. Just be careful with those gumdrops they sell before the show – by the time you find out the secret behind their sweetness, it’ll be too late to go back.
The Animals and Children Took to the Streets. Created by 1927. Battersea Arts Centre, London. 8 December-8 January, 15:00 and 19:30. £16 (£12 concessions, Tuesdays pay what you can). www.19-27.co.uk