Saturday, 9 February 2019

Review: The Animals and Children Took to the Streets (1927)

Thursday 7th February 2019
HOME, Manchester

This week, I was at the press night of The Animals and Children Took to the Streets at HOME Manchester for North Manchester FM. I played a (slightly) shorter version of this review on Hannah’s Bookshelf on Saturday, but here’s the (slightly) longer version of my review…

The Animals and Children Took to the Streets is a theatre show by 1927, which is on at HOME from the 6th-16th February 2019. I call this a ‘theatre show’, rather than a play, because The Animals and Children Took to the Streets is an innovative – experimental, really – performance that makes interesting use of the theatre stage. Written and directed by Suzanne Andrade, and combining music, animation and idiosyncratic performance, the show tells the story of the Bayou Mansions, a cockroach-infested tenement block in the disavowed outskirts of an unnamed big city. The show opens with a twinkling skyline and a voiceover narration introduces us to the city… and then taking us to Bayou Mansions.

In the Bayou, on Red Herring Street, the people are forgotten and downtrodden – and the children have taken to the streets in roaming gangs of disenfranchised criminality. Well-intentioned, missionary-esque Agnes Eaves has read about the problem with the Bayou’s children, and she arrives with her daughter to redeem the feral kids through wholesome PVA glue-based art projects. The Bayou’s forlorn caretaker observes the unfolding carnage and provides a deadpan, melancholy commentary. The children of Red Herring Street – led by wannabe Marxist revolutionary Zelda – are out of control. That is, of course, until the city’s Mayor hatches a plan to subdue them.

I was intrigued by the story blurb in the show’s promotional material, but it didn’t really prepare me for the way in which this story would unfold. The show’s set consists of three blank screens on an empty stage, and the cast consists of just three on-stage performers (plus one voice actor). However, both the screens and the performers are transformed into so much more over the course of the energetic and stylized production. Animations by Paul Barritt are projected onto the screens, transforming them into tenements, junk shops, street scenes and bedrooms. These animations are more than simply a project backdrop. They are filmic illustrations, sometimes serving as a background to the performers, but sometimes a performance in themselves.

The show blends animation, music (and musical numbers), a little bit of physical theatre, carefully choreographed acting and well-placed dark humour to create up a story that is captivating and fun.

The overall style here is graphic-novel-Gothic – for all its desolation, dripping pipes, vermin and vandalism, there’s a quirky and entertaining charm to this dynamic animated setting. And it is certainly dynamic – animated sequences run across the screens, and locations shift with rapidity. Holes in the backdrop open and close to become windows and doors, moving us inside and outside at a staggering pace. At one point, a character dumps a bag into a rubbish chute, and we follow its progress down through the building, past rooms full of leaping children and harried adults, before it reaches the ground floor and falls into a junk shop. This junk shop then springs to life, as a door opens and an actor appears. The sense of movement is fantastic, belying the static nature of the three screens on stage. When one character takes an Alice-in-Wonderland-style tumble, you can almost feel her moving through the air – despite the fact her feet haven’t really left the ground.

For me, the real highlight of The Animals and Children Took to the Streets is the performances. Three on-stage actors in stylized white face paint conjure up the motley inhabitants of the Bayou with the aid of costume and props, interacting with the projected sequences so seamlessly as to almost become part of the animation.

Genevieve Dunne switches between the roles of prim idealist Agnes Eaves and adolescent firebrand Zelda, imbuing each role with its own distinct character. Felicity Sparks energetically accompanies the action on the piano, peering out of a window variously in the guise of tenant, predatory lawyer and ice cream seller to sing out a commentary. But it is Rowena Lennon’s versatile performance that really impresses – transforming (almost instantaneously) from Bayou tenant to caretaker to Zelda’s junk shop-proprietor mother, Lennon’s quick changes of costume and location almost defy the senses.

This is a fun show that utilizes highly stylized sets and performances to create an off-beat and evocative world. With its Soviet and Parisian design influences, odd linguistic flourishes and accents, it’s hard to place where the Bayou is meant to be, exactly. This sense of placelessness adds to the graphic novel feel of the piece.

Similarly, the overall message of the piece is never made explicit. And yet, for all its entertaining exuberance, comic-book style and dark comedy, it feels as though it means something. The show was first staged in 2010, and then again in 2011. At this point, some critics read it as a (prescient) commentary on the riots in the UK. Certainly, Zelda’s war cry of ‘We want what you have out there’, and the show’s refrain of ‘Born in the Bayou, die in the Bayou’ seems to hint at some sort of social commentary. But then again, placelessness goes hand-in-hand with timelessness here, and so it’s also possible that this is a parable for many ages.

I’ll say nothing about the show’s ending (no spoilers!), except to say there’s a nice little bit of fourth-wall breaking that lends a comedically Brechtian air to the proceedings. This, coupled with the show’s performing usherettes, is done with a light touch, which avoids undermining what turns out to be a rather thought-provoking finale.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Animals and the Children Took to the Streets, and it’s a definite recommendation from me. The show’s aesthetic is very much to my tastes, and the innovative use of projection, animation, music and physical performance makes for an unusual and compelling tale about the lost souls at the edge of the city.

The Animals and Children Took to the Streets is on at HOME in Manchester until the 16th February, and then the Lyric Hammersmith in London.

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