Review: The Tin Drum (Liverpool Everyman)

A co-production between Kneehigh, Liverpool Everyman and West Yorkshire Playhouse embarks on a UK tour

You have to hand it to the Everyman for starting a brand new season with Kneehigh‘s latest production – a musical version of the Günter Grass novel The Tin Drum, about an ageless child fighting Nazis with percussion.

If that sounds glib it’s not totally out of keeping with the approach of this production, which is deferential to the original text in all the right ways while also deconstructing it, rebuilding it and then setting it to the sort of soundtrack that might result from Sparks, Gary Numan and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop jamming together.

Grass’s satirical Bildungsroman takes us on a patchwork tour of the twentieth century through the lens of the Free City of Danzig during the Weimar Republic, WWII and beyond, though Kneehigh only focuses on the first of the books. Oskar is a baby born self-aware and intelligent, who decides to stop growing at the age of three and becomes a peculiar focal point for the people surrounding him as they try to navigate bigotry, persecution and all-out conflict.

Narrated in retrospect by a much older Oskar – perhaps the least reliable narrator in modern fiction – you could say it’s Homeric though, given the complicated sex lives and a whiff of the Sally Bowles lent by Nazi uniforms, perhaps Homerotic is more apt.

Although the central figure is Oskar, a quite terrifying black-eyed puppet, we see his family and others live, love and ultimately die in the Polish city of Gdansk. And sometimes it’s told in musical form, but sometimes not. Often there’s narration and frequently it’s acted out. The clash of musical styles, puppetry, props and sheer knockabout physicality makes for a heady mix.

It’s irreverent, anarchic, ridiculous and one can only marvel at how it all fits together. With a soundtrack as diverse and apparently dissonant that The Mighty Boosh would baulk – in addition to vernacular straight out of a BBC3 sitcom – it’s a giddy alchemical soundclash. Count the references – or tick off the music, theatre or film The Tin Drum evokes. Better still, sit back and enjoy the ride. The performances and the production are watertight; Charles Hazlewood's soundtrack deserves a review of its own. In lesser hands, it could be grisly but Kneehigh carry it off with such confidence that the play never once feels on dubious ground.

Yes, it’s riotous and colourful and immensely fun. But the production has some vital rough edges. There is the Sturm und Drang of approaching war; a downed chandelier and shattered windows part of the once-elegant, destructible set. The cast is aware, in their own words, that darkness is coming. When Oskar raps out a report on his drum to disrupt a Nazi gathering we might wish for one of our own. A pitiful parade of tiny statuettes carrying their worldly belongings make their way across the stage; people are beguiled by charismatic leaders and before we know it there is cruelty and death. And it’s not to suspect that it has been thus ever since.

But before long we’re off again. A machine-gun siege; puppetry that blends the uncanny with the amusing; an '80s groove about miscegenation – with a goose. Because why not? It never stays still long enough to pin down and builds to a hair-raising climax utilising the formidable skills of the crew and ensemble cast.

What is The Tin Drum then? A rock’n’roll opera, comedy or tragedy; a musical, folklore or simply a warning from the past? Is it metaphor or madness? Both, and all of those things, one suspects. But above all it’s magical.

The Tin Drum runs at the Liverpool Everyman until 14 October ahead of a UK tour.