This is a revival of Shockheaded
Peter, the gruesome, funny musical created by the eccentric British
musical group The Tiger Lillies and experimental theatre mavens Phelim
McDermott and Julian Crouch. Based on a 19th century children's book,
it tells a collection of cautionary tales about "bad children" using puppetry,
masks, and other theatrical devices.
The producers suggest that the material is appropriate for children aged
8 years and up. Shockheaded Peter had its American premiere at the New
Victory Theatre about five years ago.
At right: Anthony Cairns and Tamzin Griffin in a scene
from Shockheaded Peter (photo © Joan Marcus)
Lewonczyk · February 19, 2005
The little boy who had his thumbs cut off because he couldn't stop sucking
them. The little girl who played with matches and burned herself to death.
The misbehaving bully who got bit by a rabid dog and died. These sorry
creatures could be YOU, if you don't change your ways.
Shockheaded Peter, a successful British import which returns to New
York after appearing at the New Victory in 1999, is a cautionary revue
for twisted children, a how-to-be-good guide that could have been written
by Edward Gorey in the throes of a morphine binge. Stories of terrible
things happening to mischievous children are interspersed with the ongoing
tale of a forlorn couple who buried their monstrous baby—a boy with unmanageable
hair and foot-long fingernails—beneath the floorboards, an act of weakness
that begins to transform them for the worse…
Many elements are essential to this unholy stew. The primary ingredient
is Struweelpeter, a collection of darkly didactic poems for children
written in German in 1845 by one Heinrich Hoffman that provides this musical
with its ominous, off-kilter libretto. Equally important, though, is the
participation of the Tiger Lillies, a notorious cult cabaret trio led
by the creepy falsetto of ringleader Martyn Jacques and abetted by bassist
Adrian Stout and drummer Adrian Huge. Their songs—which would be equally
at home coming from a senile grandmother's decaying music box or the dim
stage of a seedy Weimar cabaret—provide the show with a unifying auditory
identity that slightly tweaks the unforgiving tone of the original poems
into something funnier and more theatrical.
On the optical end, the acting and design are stunning. The stage-within-a-stage,
with its working doors and windows that conceal all kinds of wonders and
horrors, is a masterpiece of engineering, as are the various puppets (a
stork, some bunnies, some things I can't even describe) that populate
it (all courtesy of production designers Julian Crouch and Graeme Gilmour).
As the greasy, self-important master of ceremonies, Julian Bleach turns
in one of the most consistently hysterical performances I've seen in years,
all the way from his opening declaration that he is “the greatest actor
who ever existed” all the way to his clumsy attempt to impart a closing
moral while wearing one of the most outlandish costumes ever constructed.
(The ripely squalid costumes are by Kevin Pollard.) The rest of the cast
is equally sharp on the physical and vocal fronts, though they don't get
quite the same opportunity to show off.
With its melodramatic gestures, its toy-theatre set, and its 19th-century
source material, Shockheaded Peter is a sinister pageant of Victoriana—not
only in terms of its visual and theatrical elements, but also its moralism,
its notions of psychology, and its attitude towards children. Though everything
in the production (directed by Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott) is
presented with a knowing wink, it hints at the black depths of terror
the world of 150 years ago offered anyone unfortunate enough to be born
My qualm with the Shockheaded Peter is that, with just a little
less winking and hinting, it could be so much more than the deviously
clever entertainment that it is. Poking through the absurdities and self-conscious
stagecraft—like the freakishly overgrown fingernails of its title character—is
a truly mesmerizing parable about the horrors of childhood, and the universality
they gain as they bleed into the horrors of adulthood. But the cautionary
fables don't always gel with the occasionally clumsy frame story surrounding
it, and certain production numbers performed straight, without stagecraft—the
strangely moving “Flying Robert” in particular—leave you longing to see
them visually tied together with the others—and, in turn, tied together
all around, into something greater than the sum of its parts. Though the
production itself is as polished as any show could ever hope to be, the
writing and conception still feel like they're still a draft or two away
from achieving their full potential.
But when you laugh as hard at a show as I laughed at this one, perhaps
it's a bit Victorian to expect something more edifying. Lovers of music,
movement, comedy, and spectacle will be thoroughly entertained—and perhaps
that's moral enough for one story.