The interaction between actors and animated images has long been popular with cinema audiences (consider Mary Poppins, if you are so inclined).
It is still unusual though to see theatre that embraces the concept with quite so enthusiastic a commitment as 1927‘s The Animals and Children Took to the Streets, a production brilliantly conceived by creative team Lillian Henley, Paul Barritt and Suzanne Andrade.
The story, told with verve and wit, concerns the inhabitants of a downtown tenement called the Bayou, in which reside (apart from a multitude of twitching cockroaches) an assortment of downtrodden and eccentric residents.
intent on liberating
the poor with
handicrafts made of
lentils and glue
These include an idealistic caretaker desperate to escape, a visiting middle class do-gooder intent on liberating the poor with handicrafts made of lentils and glue, and an ardent revolutionary who ignites the disaffected youth to riot and rise against the wealthy citizens of the city.
With its three brilliant comic actors playing a variety of roles, its three screens of animation , and a piano, it is possibly one of the most delightful things you will have seen in a long time.
The three actors produce richly detailed performances . Gesture, the physical precision of mime, as well as outlandish props and costumes, combine to produce a strongly expressionistic sense of clarity. The action, enchantingly integrated with the zany, endlessly shifting animation sequences behind them, is all carried off with flair, and the joy of the production is how you gradually cease to notice the joins between the acted and drawn worlds, as they come together in ever-increasing inventiveness.
Much of the animation is reminiscent of the futurist Communist propaganda posters of the 20s, which adds to the revolutionary atmosphere, and although the political undertones of the story will resonate very presciently with modern audiences highly conscious of the growing class of the precarious and dispossessed depicted in the play, the story, told with the very lightest of touches, avoids any feeling of preachy politicizing. Rather, the play is richly humourous, mining elements of the grotesque, mixed with twenties silent movie clownery, and a fairly liberal dash of high camp.
Other joys include a narrated story told in sinister, sharply written language , reminiscent of 19th century, nightmare-inducing cautionary tales for children, and delivered with the playfully mocking tone of a sadistic aunt.
Along with this clammy sense of unease, the play also has some enjoyably depraved songs, with a delicious contrast created between the piano-accompanied, enunciated warbling of the singing, and the seedy vividness of the lyrics. Imagine Joyce Grenfell singing about dildos and you´re on the right lines.
I hope I haven’t made the production sound like a mishmash of styles because in fact it all mixes together wonderfully. I especially loved the way the animation allowed a focus on both the large ( the hand of God plucking one of the characters, raising them to the sky, then letting them crash back to earth) and the small ( the journey of a gumdrop through a child´s body).
Similarly, we have the high speed sequences of the revolutionaries enveloping the city park, and then the slow-motion sweeping of dust with the caretaker´s broom. In other words, the dimensions of the theatrical space become something very flexible and unlimited, allowing for the creative sweep of the narrative to be played out to the full extent of the company´s rich imagination.
As cinema becomes bogged down with demographic-chasing, multi-million dollar CGI, 3D blah-blah, it was rather gratifying to see theatre that raises its game, incorporating elements of film and doing so without sacrificing plot, characterisation, and – oh, the rarity – charm!
Michael Lane saw The Animals and Children Took to the Streets as part of Madrid’s Festival de Otono a Primavera.Festival de Otono a Primavera