Outside the Council Chamber at Battersea Arts Centre, severe usherettes proffer sweets in a threatening manner and issue stern warnings to the audience. Welcome to 1927âs world, a curious, beguiling mixture of animation, dark tunes, dead-pan comedy and strange women in leopard print headscarves.
âThe Animals and Children Took to the Streetsâ is set in the sordid Bayou Mansions on Red Herring Street, the âthorn in this cityâs sideâ. The Bayou is home to sinister and illegal goings on, watched over by a criminal queen-pin junk shop owner, her pirate daughter, a depressed caretaker, neighbours who lock their doors when they hear the screams, and Agnes Eve who has a cartoon daughter, Little Evie Eve. Agnes has come to the Bayou to rescue children through the power of collage, but her art classes go seriously awry.
The show revolves around gloriously Gothic songs by Lilian Henley, which sound like Tom Waits sung by Edith Sitwell. In high-pitched, brittle tones characters sing about hating children, catching herpes and being raised on âvodka, borscht and tearsâ. Feral, cartoon Bayou children are dosing up on Grannyâs Gumdrops, âthe chemical coshâ. The caretakerâs diary, read in a hilarious, monotone voiceover, complains about being chased by âWayne the Racist and his eight childrenâ. Thereâs a dose of Roald Dahl and a smattering of âShockheaded Peterâ, but the show is highly original, down to Suzanne Andradeâs inspired writing and direction.
At the heart of show are Paul Barrittâs delightful, hand-drawn, animated films which not only form the scenery, but frequently join in with the action. Barrittâs city is irresistible, his drawing cheerfully influenced by 70s Czech animation, Constructivist painting, Ludwig Bemelmansâ âMadeleineâ books, Saul Bassâs Hitchcock titles. The films are ambitious: one stunning scene involves an animated cat in an animated bag falling down a rubbish chute past floor after floor of bustling, shadow people. They are also brilliantly funny: windows flap and pipes shake in time to the music, an angry French woman is subtitled cartoon flies buzz around a real head.
âThe Animals and Children Took to the Streetsâ is a treat – clever, creative, laced with black humour and impossible to dislike. We are very lucky to have 1927 brightening up cold, dark 2010 with their gleeful entertainment.
By Tom Bolton
The Animals and Children Took to the Streets is at Battersea Arts Centre until 8 January, tickets ÂŁ16 (ÂŁ12 concessions)s.