Grim Fairy Tales

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(263)

Review of 'Shockheaded Peter' by Heinrich Hoffman, Albany Theatre, London

'Shockheaded Peter' is billed as junk opera. It's a musical with songs like you've never heard, and it looks like a cross between a sinister Victorian play written by Roald Dahl, and a film directed by Tim Burton and starring the child catcher from 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang'. It's dark and sinister but it's also extremely funny. The show is based on a collection of German children's stories called 'Struwwelpeter', written in 1844 by Dr Heinrich Hoffman. Dr Hoffman wrote the stories for his own child after he had tried to buy a book for him and found that the only books available for children were turgid morality stories--'long tales, stupid stories, beginning and ending with abominations like "the good child must be truthful" or "children must keep clean", etc'. He wrote the Struwwelpeter stories as a parody of these.

The main story of the show is the story of Shockheaded Peter himself. He is born to the perfect couple, living in the perfect house, and they want the perfect baby to complete their family. What they actually get is Shockheaded Peter, a bizarre looking child who doesn't fit their ideal at all. They are ashamed of him and hide him under the floorboards so as to forget about him. Unfortunately for them, skeletons in cupboards and under floorboards always come back to haunt you. They are driven to drink and madness by their guilt and only find happiness at the end of the show. They are reunited with Peter and welcome him as their child when they have become such social misfits that no one else will accept them. They are finally transformed into the opposite of the perfect family they had once aspired to be.

All this sounds a bit grim, so to lighten the mood the main story is interspersed with other shorter stories. We meet, among others, Harriet who plays with matches and burns to death, Augustus who won't eat his soup and starves to death and my particular favourite, Conrad, who persists in sucking his thumbs and has them cut off by the very scary scissor man. Oh, he bleeds to death. The show is visually great--instead of flashy modern special effects, the production makes very effective use of puppetry and lighting, creating an atmosphere of decaying Victoriana. The band are particularly bizarre--rising up from beneath the stage they look like they've risen from the dead, and perform sinister Cajun-style songs throughout the show. The real star of the show is the narrator, a scary, skeletal figure who aspires to be a classical actor and feels he is demeaning himself by performing in the popular theatre.

Every day now, we get pronouncements from New Labour on how wicked children should be punished. Shockheaded Peter is a terrific antidote to all the talk of parenting classes and punishments. If you like humour on the dark side, go and see this. But I'm not sure I'd take the kids.