Kneehigh really do dance to the beat of a different drum. The Cornwall-based collective have created a monster from Günter Grass’ allegorical, wartime tale: a magical, musical monstrosity of chaotic mayhem with their trademark anarchy and inimitable artistry at its core.
The tale of Oskar, a boy banging his tin drum in rebellion against an adult world of war and responsibility, is a tough one to adapt: a bildungsroman where the boy won’t grow, a parable whose moral compass points all the wrong ways, and a myth with too much grit to be truly magic. Undaunted by the dangers, Kneehigh unites the novel’s density and diversity in their adaptation. Part epic, poetic opera, part Spring Awakening-style musical, part creeping electronic soundscape, The Tin Drum has music at the heart of its storytelling. While three onstage musicians play Charles Hazlewood’s chaotic, electronic score, the actors are an eclectic chorus of unusual voices, from Dom Coyote’s uncanny, almost-countertenor tone for Oskar, to Damon Daunno’s, Mika-like lilts that dance like his passionate Pole dances with Oskar’s mother, to the soothing, soaring sounds of Nandi Bhebhe. The effect is cacophonous, and it really works to tell such a chaotic story.
As is only expected with operatic performances,The Tin Drum demands repeat viewings, so impressively fast and funny are the almost-rapped recitatives that it’s impossible to laugh, listen, and follow along all at the same time. As such, on initial viewing, this doesn’t feel like Kneehigh’s neatest narrative, although Grass’ novel, where unreliability and unruliness reign, may be more to blame. Yet, the wild, quick-witted cleverness is never lost in the chaos, from Sarah Wright’s expert puppeteering of the slightly sinister, sleepless-looking Oskar, to Etta Murfitt’s freely creative choreography, to the quips of Carl Grose’s script that fly effortlessly in the performances of a versatile and effervescent cast. Kneehigh’s creation is not only comic but creepy, with Oskar’s shrieks shattering the glass windows of Naomi Dawson’s dynamic, double-level, dilapidated-looking set, Malcolm Rippeth’s atmospheric lighting creating creeping shadows from suspended lamps, handheld lights, and a central chandelier that seems to rise up of its own accord, and through glimpses into the greater political powers at play. Red banners and armbands are enough to allude to the Nazi Party, but the threat could be from any far-right faction: as they sing to set the scene, ‘which war? It doesn’t matter!’; the peril, as we’re all too aware, is ever-present.
The Tin Drum is a riot in every way: in the themes of political uprising mirrored in a very personal revolt against growing up, in the genre-resisting reflection of Grass’ novel, the electric, eclectic artistry, the hearty and horrid humour, and the weird wonder of it all. - Leah Tozer