The Animals and Children Took to the Streets
Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith
First created in 2010 on a commission from Battersea Arts Centre, Malthouse Theatre Melbourne and The Showroom (University of Chichester), this extraordinary example of 1927’s production style is now revived with a new cast for national and international touring.
The audience is greeting by three screens on which a black-and-white graphic is projected of city high rises. It could be any city and it looks modern but when the action starts and that image is replaced by others, the style suggests an earlier time, for this is live action combined with drawn animation and music that feels like a mix of Berlin cabaret and early, very slightly flickering silent movie (though here there is both sound and bright colour). Set into the drawn image are live performers Genevieve Dunne, Rowena Lennon and Felicity Sparks who all precisely match their movement to the drawn image.
The setting is the rundown part of town known as the Bayou (though it seems European, not the American South), in particular a tenement building where curtain-twitching ladies comment on their neighbours while children run wild in the streets. There are echoes of the masses of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Cyrillic-looking typefaces suggest revolutionary Russia.
It is here that Agnes Eaves (like the ladies, an actor in whiteface) arrives with her little daughter Evie (drawn animation) to bring art to the poor, to be as life changing as possible by encouraging creativity with dried pasta and PVA adhesive
It’s a place where, these characters tell us, it is a struggle to keep the wolf from the door. The locals include racists and perverts who sniff ladies bicycle seats and Agnes's home in Bayou Mansions on Red Herring Street seems infested with vermin.
The authorities have a plan to deal with the children. The trouble is that little Evie gets caught up in it and she disappears with them. The Mansions’ kind caretaker (a live actress in a fright wig but his voice recorded by James Addie) sets out to rescue her.
Paul Barrit’s animated imagery and the skill of the performers interacting with it hold the attention much more than the simple story with its occasional moments of social comment. At night, the walls of the Mansions are crawling with bugs and silverfish; by day, lizards scamper over them. People popping up in windows in suddenly revealed spaces, three dimensional props join the drawn ones, a real umbrella protects from artwork rain, characters cross from being part of one screen image to part of the next but still perfectly synchronized with the picture and Lillian Henley’s music.
The Animals and Children Took to the Streets lasts about seventy minutes without an interval and is a technical triumph, cleverly timed to offer new images to hold the attention with a cut to a new place or viewpoint or a strident caption. Powerful images make this so watchable and, despite having sound, it feels like silent cinema with its appropriate piano accompaniment. Although as director Suzanne Anrade keeps her actors very straight-faced in their white make-up, it has an element of self-parody that is delightfully funny.