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 1927‚Äôs world, a curious, beguiling mixture of animation, dark tunes, dead-pan comedy and strange women in leopard print headscarves.
‚ÄėThe Animals and Children Took to the Streets‚Äô is set in the sordid Bayou Mansions on Red Herring Street, the ‚Äúthorn in this city‚Äôs side‚ÄĚ. 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 ‚Äúvodka, borscht and tears‚ÄĚ. Feral, cartoon Bayou children are dosing up on Granny‚Äôs Gumdrops, ‚Äúthe chemical cosh‚ÄĚ. The caretaker‚Äôs diary, read in a hilarious, monotone voiceover, complains about being chased by ‚ÄúWayne the Racist and his eight children‚ÄĚ. There‚Äôs a dose of Roald Dahl and a smattering of ‚ÄėShockheaded Peter‚Äô, but the show is highly original, down to Suzanne Andrade‚Äôs inspired writing and direction.
At the heart of show are Paul Barritt‚Äôs delightful, hand-drawn, animated films which not only form the scenery, but frequently join in with the action. Barritt‚Äôs city is irresistible, his drawing cheerfully influenced by 70s Czech animation, Constructivist painting, Ludwig Bemelmans‚Äô ‚ÄėMadeleine‚Äô books, Saul Bass‚Äôs 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.
‚ÄėThe Animals and Children Took to the Streets‚Äô 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 ¬£16 (¬£12 concessions)s.