Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Battersea Arts Centre
In my youth, revolting ginger bread men were a botched batch baked by Dad. At the Battersea Arts Centre, thanks to theatre company 1927's vitriolic and comic imagination, they are a gun-wielding militia performing an unlikely putsch.
In one of the ten satirical, multimedia vignettes delivered on stage, an edible biscuit-mob fire bullets of icing: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is deadly theatrical confectionary.
A fusion of disparate elements - animation, documentary, music, storytelling and cabaret - 1927 were recently a mere humble hot-pot of gifted enthusiasts gigging at the Working Men's Club in Bethnal Green.
The company's unanticipated success at the 2007 Edinburgh Fringe (they scooped five awards) launched this quartet on a world tour, which has wound up at the artistically open-armed and open-minded BAC for a Christmas run.
Between the Devil owns an eclectic aesthetic and a troubling, gruesome appeal: its welding of non-theatrical elements has fashioned a form of theatre with one foot in the relics of silent-movies and early twentieth century skit performance, and another in the vanguard of contemporary theatre making.
The production goes further than simply affording satisfying distraction: it offers a discordant treatment of the ill-effects of vanity, charity, curiosity and childhood.
Unlike the sketch-show purgatory played out on stage - of which Sinking Suburbia, where two housewives engage in competitive gardening, and Maderlay, a recollected dream in which nipples secrete blood and doves defecate marshmallows, stand out - 1927 are betwixt a sponge and a soft place: comfortably set for future successes.
All aspects of Jo Crowley's production - Suzan Andrade's seductive yet threatening enunciation, Esme Appleton's vigorous portrayals, Paul Barritt's animation and Lillian Henley's atmospheric piano playing - bear the mark of a professional and hyper-creative artistic team. Will their next offering (pencilled for release in 2010) charm and bite without the luxury of being a delightful surprise?
Deciding upon an artistic vision must be a fraught process for a budding theatre company: go too bold or obscure and they risk commercial alienation and taunts of gratuitous deviation; tow a safe line and they risk being lost amongst the crowd. With the fence worn with sitters, and flanked on either side with the remains of failed practitioners, where does one pitch their artistic tent in an economic climate where purse strings and generosity are at a premium?
1927, by gift, chance and daring, have found a terrain that threatens to keep them bathed in acclaim for quite a while.
It is fitting with the production's dark humour and understated social commentary that the red carpet that welcomes audience members into Mark Copeland's proscenium lair inconspicuously feeds them to the devil (a huge jaw engulfs entrants). Is indulgence a damnable vice? If so, I'll send a postcard.
Equally, at the performance's forked tail, and whilst the audience slowly, smilingly clamber out of the auditorium, a half flesh, half animated character continues to run - furiously and on the spot - with no real means or intent of getting anywhere. Embroiled as we are in this myopic, unblinking capitalist merry-go-round, are we all not running in such a way?
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is theatrical Tiramisu: the vigour of limb, imagination and cunning are its cream, soft and relieving on the palate; the sinister humour, veiled satire and frightening candour are its coffee soaked sponge, bitter sweet.
Taste some: this piece of theatre should satisfy the most discriminating of diets.
Until 3rd January
Reviewer: Ben Aitken