May 1, 2005, Wednesday

The Kiddie Show Goes Dark

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Julian Bleach and Tamzin Griffin in "Shockheaded Peter," a play inspired by grim cautionary tales.


The spectacle should have been enough to satisfy any child - well, any child with a serious sweet tooth. The audience had been treated to a singing candy factory, a friendly flying automobile and a heroine named Truly Scrumptious. Yet the little girl behind me at a matinee of the hit musical "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" in London kept kicking the back of my chair in a tattoo that spelled boredom. "Isn't the Child Catcher ever going to show up?" she groaned.

She was referring to one of the few things in the production that wasn't the approximate color and flavor of a Necco Wafer, the cadaverous Child Catcher, who sweeps up tykes as if they were stray dogs. Unfortunately for my upper spine, the Child Catcher did not appear until the end of the first act. By that time, Miss Restless Legs had kicked home her point: can't we cut to the scary part?

That yen is now being addressed with a new child-conscious explicitness. "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," which just opened on Broadway at the Hilton Theater, mostly sticks to the sunny side of life. (Even the Child Catcher turns out to be fairly toothless, as ghouls go.) But over the past few years, more and more British-bred plays and musicals for that hopefully labeled demographic, the family audience, have been replacing sweetness and light with tartness and darkness.

Not every production in this growing genre may devote itself as exhaustively (or amusingly) to the prepubescent fear factor as does "Shockheaded Peter," the musical divertissement inspired by grim cautionary tales of the Victorian era, currently visiting New York at the Little Shubert Theater.

Yet kindred shadows, deployed with varying levels of artistic confidence, can be sensed in productions as different as "His Dark Materials," the National Theater's recent adaptation of Philip Pullman's epic series of fantasy novels; Matthew Bourne's restaging of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" ballet as a fable of sexual repression and awakening among abused orphans; and even the Broadway-bound "Mary Poppins," the blockbuster version of the beloved 1964 Disney movie musical, which opened last December in London at the Prince Edward Theater with the controversy-stirring caveat that the show is "intended for children seven years and up."

The producers of "Mary Poppins" are not wrong to impose an age limit. This latest interpretation of P. L. Travers's books is steeped in a newly somber, family-therapy-style awareness of how parents fail their children. Designed by Bob Crowley and directed by Sir Richard Eyre and Mr. Bourne, this "Mary Poppins" has exchanged the Technicolor-bright palette of the Disney film for shades of gray.

Mary still dispenses spoonfuls of sugar in song. But as played by Laura Michelle Kelly, she has the hard perfectionist's gloss and headachy smile of the middle-aged Joan Crawford. And when her young charges, Jane and Michael Banks, throw an especially nasty tantrum, their mistreated playthings come to life in a revolt that ends with the children's facing a firing squad of toy soldiers. The moral, intoned in a voice from the grave: "Children who lose their tempers will lose everything else."

It is a bizarre, disconcerting sequence that, for all the contemporary psychologizing of Julian Fellowes's script, feels like a throwback to a time when nannies ruled their nurseries with pious horror stories. Which is the sensibility being satirized with such barbed stylishness in "Shockheaded Peter," an adaptation of "Struwwelpeter," Heinrich Hoffmann's mid-19th-century collection of bedtime stories in which naughty children come to imaginatively violent ends.

Directed by Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott, with eerie songs that sting by Martyn Jacques, "Shockheaded Peter" manages to have its poisoned cake even as it devours it. True, the vignettes enacted by a baleful ensemble of people and puppets are of that cruel and fearsome stripe from which enlightened latter-day parents recoil. (e.g., a thumb-sucker loses his thumbs to "that great long legg'd scissors man"; a child who plays with matches goes up in flames.)

But the macabre impact of these tales is consistently sabotaged by the manner of their telling. The evening's M.C. (the brilliant Julian Bleach), while looking like a Victorian variation on the Nosferatu, is a bumbler - a self-important ham actor plagued by clumsy timing and reduced to railing at an audience that refuses to take him seriously.

Grown-ups I know who have seen "Shockheaded Peter" appear to have been more disturbed by it than children, and that is as it should be. For this show is probing how the scare tactics waved like big sticks by parents and teachers can slide into sadism. Adults may see a grotesque and uncomfortable mirror of themselves in the M.C.; what children see is a dour and pompous grown man being so ridiculous that he is robbed of his power to frighten.

Far more dangerous are the adults in "His Dark Materials," Nicholas Wright's six-hour, two-part interpretation of Mr. Pullman's futurist retelling of "Paradise Lost" for children. A huge commercial success for the National when it was staged (on two separate occasions) in 2003 and 2004, this commensurately elephantine production, directed by Nicholas Hytner, is of monumental earnestness compared to "Shockheaded Peter," but it shares a subtext: grown-ups are not to be trusted.

The story of a cosmic revolution that takes place in several different universes, "His Dark Materials" pits a heroic girl on the edge of adolescence against academics, scientists, politicians, priests, God himself and, oh yes, her parents, though she doesn't learn who they are until well into the show. Mummy turns out to be an icy bureaucrat who is overseeing experiments that separate children from their souls, to keep them in a state of arrested innocence. The real rebellion here is implicitly every child's fight to grow up.

The idea that gruesomeness is good for growing minds has been newly cool in children's literature since the 1976 publication of "The Uses of Enchantment," Bruno Bettelheim's landmark defense of the violence in classic fairy tales. This attitude has assumed a knowing tone of parody in recent years, as in the films of Tim Burton and the novels of Lemony Snicket. And it has never entirely left the books and plays of the English, who have always had more of an allergy to sticky sweetness (in things cultural if not culinary) than Americans.

What has come more emphatically to the fore in theater in London - and reflects a more general trend in plays there since the invasion of Iraq - is a suspicion of all those who wield power, which for children of course means grown-ups. This includes the storytellers (as in "Shockheaded Peter"), the rulers of the world ("His Dark Materials") and even Mom and Dad.

In the musical of "Mary Poppins," it is made clear that it's the failings of Mr. and Mrs. Banks that have made the presence of a supernanny necessary. But as far as I'm concerned, Mary only adds to the problem. After all, would you trust a nanny who sicced your own toys on you?