UK Review: 'The Tin Drum' at West Yorkshire Playhouse

Adam Bruce

  • OnStage United Kingdom Critic

It’s that time of year again, when Kneehigh Theatre come out of their creative hibernation in their rustic barns on the Cornish coast, bringing the latest fruits of their long-loved and respected rehearsal process to stages across the country. There’s no secret to the way they work; they simply embrace collective creativity, the joy of storytelling and the artistic challenge of adapting existing works and creating new pieces. Autumn, then, is a time of rejoice for Kneehigh fans and general theatregoers alike – especially this year, as Kneehigh have returned with one of their most exciting shows yet: an adaptation of Gunter Grass’s novel The Tin Drum. I took my seat in the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Quarry Theatre to bear witness to the harvest.

The Tin Drum has a framework and narrative that only Kneehigh would dare to adapt for the stage – and one that is entirely in keeping with their compositional style and theatrical aesthetic. Our story begins with the newly born Oskar Matzerath, who claims to have seen the horrors of the adult world and, at the age of three, decides to stay young forever and never be part of a world that’s bending under the strain induced by the rise of the Nazi party. When he’s three, he receives a tin drum, which he brandishes against the might of the oppressive tide, and begins to flush out the torment seeping its way into his world.

That narrative summary is only scratching the surface – there’s so many other facets explored within the piece, from duty and responsibility and the strength of familial love, to the loss of innocence and triumph of human will. Yet, even in the face of such complex thematic chaos, accompanied by a rich array of equally complex and malleable characters, Kneehigh stir the melting pot and simmer it down into purely beautiful and focused storytelling. Mike Shepherd is really starting to hit his stride as the main director of Kneehigh’s latest pieces, including The Tin Drum. Simultaneously anarchic and mellow, his directorial style finds a comfortable spot between gleeful silliness and heartfelt poignancy, really lending itself to Grass’s literary masterpiece.

Kneehigh’s collective creativity truly influences the outward performative demeanor and energy of its storytellers, and The Tin Drum is a fine example of this, so much so that every performance from this superb cast blends perfectly into a dynamic ensemble. Each member of this company deserves equal praise, and with their unrelenting energy and sheer sense of joy that comes from telling us this story, they craft a stunning and memorable collage that will long remain a joy to remember.

Buttressing the fine performances of the company is a riotous-yet-refined scenography, the brainchild of a stunning collaboration between director and creative team. Charles Hazlewood’s eclectic 80s synth score strikes a marvelous chord with Ian Davies’ sound design, finding a perfect sense of poise and balance amidst the striking aural landscape. Designer Naomi Dawson brings us a stunning set that helps to concentrate and enhance the action and, when combined with Malcolm Rippeth’s atmospheric lighting design, creates an incredible backdrop that plays host to the piece’s wonderful sense of progression and artistic achievement.

The Tin Drum is a piece that leaves you marveling at the great range of storytelling devices at work –there’s puppetry, live music and physical theatre, to name a few – but never leaves you overwhelmed. There’s always room to breathe and take everything in, and in doing so, spectators are able to take that intangible sense of ‘something’ away. What that ‘something’ is – perhaps it’s a sense of being moved, awed, inspired – remains specific to each audience member, and this is a company that truly rejoices in taking audiences to such places. Kneehigh have done it once again, and deliver an absolute triumph to the stage.

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