THE TIN DRUM at Bristol Old Vic

I doubt it could be ever said of Kneehigh that they have bitten off more than they can chew. Such is the method to the madness that nothing is beyond their wit. At first blush then, The Tin Drum would appear to be ideal material for this exceptional company, with the magical realism of the book offering an opportunity for a thoroughgoing exercise of their strengths. However, what can be said in this instance is that, occasionally, some things need a little more chewing than others.

The book and this theatrical close cousin are undoubtedly political works. Moreover, with international and domestic events being such as they are, allegorical references (and so relevances) for our own times jab us sharply in the ribs. Those dark traits of humanity that fed the corrosive nationalism which had its final flowering in Nazism are disturbingly contemporary, yet they feature as little more than a footnote in a first act which spends much of its time wandering through a series of biographical episodes in the life and pre-life of the boy, Oskar. So whilst certainly not lacking in the creative zest that is the stamp of authenticity from a Kneehigh production, the first act left me still awaiting the arrival of a narrative thread.

Yet Kneehigh firing on five cylinders is still a more entertaining prospect than many a company of more conventional ambition firing on six.  As the heirs of Brecht, with all the gubbins of production shamelessly on show, the puppet Oskar, the boy who refused to grow up, is a winning theatrical sleight of hand. With a magical creature who attempts to hold back the dark forces at work in Europe by beating his drum, there are faint echoes of folk tale and myth to the story.

Voiced and manipulated by various actors Oskar is no more ‘wooden’ than any of the talented bunch of performers who dance and sing their way through the show.  Nandi Bhebhe is a paradigm of colour-blind casting as Oskar’s mother, Agnes.  Acting opposite a puppet is a challenge few drama school courses can prepare one for.  With no concession to the absurdity and with little to guide her as to how much the audience is itself projecting onto the puppet she gives a performance both unsentimental and gritty (a calling card for Mother Courage). But this is above all an ensemble piece, in which director, Mike Shepherd, with accustomed bravura, ‘has the word made theatrical’.

Chief accomplice in the transformation is Charles Hazlewood whose score enriches Carl Grose’s adaption with lyricism and drama. Whilst Naomi Dawson’s multi level set ensures the stage picture is crammed with interest from floor to ceiling.   ★★★★☆    Graham Wyles   9th November 2017