We’ve reached the end of the decade and entered the ‘20s again. Back at The Old Market and bringing darkly humorous folk tales with a Weimar cabaret aesthetic into the 21st century are 1927. They’re a production company best known for their Brechtian inspired work which plays on the central illusion of performers interacting seamlessly with imaginative projected animations. It’s a technique that has proved popular in their previous shows, such as Golum and The Animals & Children Took To The Streets, and they’ve continued this distinctive and successful style in Roots, an anthology of rarely told folk stories, the kind that were passed down generations before Disneyfication kicked in.
Darkly humorous folk tales with a Weimar cabaret aesthetic.
The macabre tales are in the vein of cautionary tales, such as those popularised by Hilaire Belloc, although it’s not always that easy to decipher what the moral of the story is meant to be. The King’s story about finding the perfect wife is clearly played to satirise the never ending compliance of his chosen bride, who submissively sacrifices everything for her King. However, although the ridiculous extremes of her devotion drew laughs from the audience, you couldn’t help but feel robbed of some kind of comeuppance for the foolish King. In another tale, a man is forced to live with the physical embodiment of poverty; is the moral of the story that you will remain in poverty unless you do something about it? Or is it is a criticism on how inherited wealth is the only way ordinary people can survive? The tales 1927 have chosen to tell don’t always end as neatly as you’d expect and they play on this discomfort to win reluctant laughs.
The most memorable tale is their opener: the tale of the very fat cat who one day eats porridge, a spoon, the bowl and more besides. This repetitively melodic yarn pushes past absurd and beyond. Roots’s black vaudeville humour might remind you of dark cabaret acts such as The Tiger Lillies – you’ll find yourself laughing at child murder, nudity and hairy chests before the evening is over. In fact, a part of me wished they’d made it even bolder and more extreme, perhaps bloating their animated fat cat to become even fatter as time went on, as if it was a murderous X-rated version of The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
Paul Barritt’s animation style is charming and naive, reminiscent of David Firth’s online 00s phenomena Salad Fingers. His visuals are compelling, each vignette bold and picture-perfect in its execution and the costumes by Sarah Munro are witty and well crafted, with a particularly bawdy curtain call being a highlight. At times, such as when an unlucky man pours out his coffee into a nearby pot plant, you’re so immersed you almost forget that the animation is not in fact reality. This spectacle is very well complemented by the rich variety of voices narrating the scenes. Apparently read by family and friends rather than professional storytellers, their performances are incredible and bring a great deal of depth and warmth to the onstage antics.
Although animation is 1927’s raison d'être, the delight it conjures is weighed down by an occasional overreliance on solely animated sequences. No doubt integrated to allow for essential costume changes, it’s still true that, without the performers’ quirky expressions and well timed interactions, the animation alone didn’t have the same level of magnetism.
However, perhaps best of all is the live musical accompaniment. Playing to score by Lillian Henley, Francesca Simmons and David Insua-Cao are often fully costumed and on stage themselves. They play a whole array of instruments (including ‘Peruvian prayer boxes, donkeys kaws, violins and musical saws’) to create an atmosphere of deep unease.
1927 might not be delivering the ‘20s style theatre we imagined, with cold gins, hot piano and all that jazz, but they are delivering the ‘20s theatre the 2020s deserve: dark, morbid and a little bit twisted. Hey, at least they’ll make you laugh whilst they’re at it.