NY TIMES THEATER REVIEW | 'SHOCKHEADED PETER'
"Shockheaded Peter" is both the silliest and the most sinister show in town. It is also, as it happens, one of the smartest
Nasty Surprises for Bad Children (and Grown-Ups, Too)
By BEN BRANTLEY
It all begins with the sound of meandering footsteps, ominous but
curiously clumsy, as if something wicked had lost its way. In the
teasing opening seconds of the sensational - in all senses of the word
- "Shockheaded Peter," you're likely to experience that mixed thrill
that is part giggle and part goose flesh, the kind that descends when
you hear a sudden thud in a dark and quiet house.
suspect that whatever lurks behind the red velvet curtains of the
Little Shubert Theater, where "Shockheaded Peter" opened last night, is
either truly fearsome or really ridiculous. Trust your instincts:
"Shockheaded Peter" is, oh, so deliciously, both.
Therein lies the genius of this one-of-a-kind "nasty picture
book" of a musical, in which badly behaved Victorian tots come to
ghastly ends. A spiky, subversive riff on Heinrich Hoffmann's
"Struwwelpeter," a droll collection of grisly bedtime stories from the
mid-19th century, "Shockheaded Peter" is both the silliest and the most
sinister show in town. It is also, as it happens, one of the smartest.
Directed with unstinting imagination and brazen assurance by
Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott, and featuring bizarrely beautiful
songs by Martyn Jacques, "Shockheaded Peter" manages to wallow in and
tear apart our enduring appetite for scaring ourselves and our
children. And while its medium is the moldy conventions of Victorian
melodramas and peep shows, this British import makes contemporary
exercises in self-spoofing horror like Wes Craven's "Scream" movies
look like, well, child's play.
"Shockheaded Peter" was
first seen in New York in a limited engagement at the New Victory
Theater five years ago. (It has since been staged several times in
London, where it picked up an Olivier Award for best entertainment in
2002.) The show returns to Manhattan in the less intimate Little
Shubert, but it definitely expands in all the right ways to fill its
new space. It feels bigger, tighter and even more audacious in its
For few shows have ever been as
good at being bad as "Shockheaded Peter" is. Its admonitory vignettes,
in which thumb-suckers lose their thumbs and picky eaters turn into
skeletons, are overseen by a cadaverous master of ceremonies who wants
nothing more than to frighten his audience into submission. But as
portrayed by Julian Bleach, this seedy, hatchet-faced ghoul brings to
mind Charles Dickens's accounts of inept grandstanding actors who
manage to sabotage every big moment.
Stooping to fit
into Mr. Crouch and Graeme Gilmour's cramped, multi-doored diorama of a
set, Mr. Bleach is a master of miscues and mangled timing. His baleful
stares into the audience always last a few seconds too long; his grand
gothic postures are a deflating fraction off-center; his creepy spiels
on "the darkest recesses of the human imagination" are too grandly
intoned to be taken seriously.
Or are they? As
exaggerated as he is, Mr. Bleach's M.C. also conveys the genuine
nastiness of the power wielded by grown-ups who enjoy terrifying
children "for their own good" (a type of character that was another
specialty of Dickens). Like another, more famous M.C., the one who
presides over a Weimar-era nightclub in the musical "Cabaret," this one
embodies the most prurient instincts of his age. He also somehow
summons every paddle-wielding gym instructor and hellfire-conjuring
disciplinarian from your youth, repackaged in Grand Guignol drag: a
figure of sport, yes, but still potent enough to make you shiver.
Then there is the music, performed by the trio Tiger Lillies and
led by Mr. Jacques, who plays a mournful accordion and sings of cruel
deaths in a sweet but strident countertenor. The songs feature
gloatingly gruesome lyrics, adapted from Hoffmann's stories, and the
Kabuki-faced, androgynous Mr. Jacques delivers them with a relish that
turns demonic whenever the word dead crops up. (He keeps repeating it,
like a record stuck in a groove.)
Like Mr. Bleach, Mr.
Jacques is a virtuoso of the anticlimax. He overextends his songs' grim
conclusions to the point of absurdity. Yet the music, which captures
the flavor of lurid Victorian street ballads without ever merely
imitating them, gets under your skin and stays there. (Mr. Jacques's
singing "snip, snip, the scissors go" will not leave my mind.)
The same double-edged sensibility infuses every detail of
"Shockheaded Peter": the blatantly fake two-dimensional scenery, the
shabby period costumes (by Kevin Pollard), the sepulchral lighting (by
Jon Linstrum), the pasteboard flames and waves that consume foolish
girls and boys, and the exquisite, battered-looking puppets that pass
through in a stumbling parade of the doomed. And the entire 10-member
ensemble, wearing harsh Dr. Caligari-style makeup, is of a perfect
piece with the stylized environment.
Children reared on
Lemony Snicket books and Tim Burton movies are unlikely to experience
nightmares because they went to "Shockheaded Peter." Their parents are
another matter. The title narrative that frames the other stories in
the show is about a couple who dispose of an unseemly infant who
doesn't match their sweet Victorian home.
and wife's subsequent slide into dementia becomes a sneaky allegory of
repression that only grown-ups can fully appreciate. The attendant
images, for all their obvious artificiality, are as contaminating as
guilty dreams. Let me just say that your first impulse, on returning
home from the Little Shubert, will probably be to trim your fingernails.
Created by Julian Bleach, Anthony Cairns, Julian Crouch, Graeme
Gilmour, Tamzin Griffin, Jo Pocock, Phelim McDermott, Michael Morris
and the Tiger Lillies, Martyn Jacques, Adrian Huge and Adrian Stout.
Directed by Mr. Crouch and Mr. McDermott. Music composed by Mr.
Jacques; lyrics adapted from Heinrich Hoffmann by Mr. Jacques.
Production design by Mr. Crouch and Mr. Gilmour. Costumes by Kevin
Pollard; lighting by Jon Linstrum; sound by Mic Pool and Roland Higham;
resident director, Heidi Miami Marshall; music supervisor, Shawn Gough;
production manager, Aurora Productions; production stage manager,
Elizabeth Burgess; company manager, R. Erin Craig; general management,
John Corker and Dan Markley; associate producers, Ian Osborne, C.
Wiesenfeld/M. McCarthy and Alisa E. Regas; executive producers, Linda
Brumbach, Michael Morris, Christine Gettins; music director, Mr.
Jacques. The Cultural Industry's production presented by Mr. Markley,
Alan J. Schuster, Pomegranate Arts, Shockheaded Media Ltd., Harriet
Newman Leve, Sonny Everett, Michael Skipper, True Love Productions,
Dede Harris/Morton Swinsky. At the Little Shubert Theater, 422 West
42nd Street, Clinton. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.
WITH: Julian Bleach, Anthony Cairns, Graeme Gilmour, Tamzin
Griffin, Rebekah Wild and the Tiger Lillies, Adrian Huge, Martyn
Jacques and Adrian Stout.