Showing as part of Mimetic Festival 2014 (17 – 29 November 2014)
Watching Kill The Beast’s The Boy Who Kicked Pigs unfold it becomes increasingly difficult to reconcile the narrator of this gothic horror show with the lovable, scarf-wearing time-traveller who regularly tops polls looking for the best Doctor Who. Yet Wikipedia tells me it is the very same Tom Baker who is responsible for this remarkably grotesque comic tale.
Underneath the story of Robert Caligari – the eponymous boy of our title – and his deviant pig-kicking ways lies the remnants of abandoned Roald Dahl tales, discarded Edward Gorey drawings and the bottled essence of Hilaire Belloc and his masterful ‘Cautionary Tales for Children’. It is a marvellously entertaining story that confounds expectations all the way through to its frenzied, horrific conclusion.
Kill The Beast should be applauded for seeing the potential in the book. It immediately feels like the story has found its natural home on stage and is perfected suited to be retold in a fashion that wholeheartedly embraces the visual medium. It is initially hard to ignore the now rather clichéd Tim Burton aesthetic that dominates proceedings yet as the play continues other, more theatrical, influences makes themselves known. One senses that the best bits of 1927 ‘The Children and Animals Took to the Streets’ and, going further back, Shockheaded Peter and The Tiger Lillies have been absorbed and turned into something new and exciting here.
At its centre is David Cumming’s extraordinary performance as Robert Caligari. Put simply it is a terrifyingly intense display of cartoon insanity; rather as if The Joker had taken teenage form. His face is contorted into an almost rictus grimace throughout and his body attuned to the need to make every gesture and movement as extravagant as possible to fully play up his grotesquery.
He is ably supported by the rest of the cast (and all members play multiple parts throughout) but it is Natasha Hodgson who really shines. As Caligari’s sister she builds a wonderful rapport with Cumming; they bounce off each perfectly and embody that spiralling dynamic of mutually loathing that can afflict siblings in their teenage years. It is also a great example of how Kill The Beast have clearly thought about how to give each character a distinctive trait – and in this case it is a wonderful shuffling gait that makes it feel that Hodgson is being pulled across the stage on magnets.
The production design is impressive; the projected animated backdrops are a simple way of enabling a company with limited resources to not be inhibited by location. The style fits with the tone of the play and the highly stylised movements of the cast occasionally give the impression we are watching an animation that has come to life rather than a play.
Director Clem Garrity should be applauded for the unity of purpose that holds it all together. It would have been very tempting to rely on the strength of the book but throughout there is a real sense that this young, scarily talented company have spent time considering how individual set-ups can be translated onto the stage. This can be seen most clearly in the cracking, and absolutely unexpected, musical number that breaks up the action halfway through. It comes out of nowhere but it is put together with such timing and commitment that it becomes a genuine show-stopper in its own right.
It also acts as a salient reminder of the choreography that is needed throughout. The show is delivered at a furious pace and some of the required costume changes are mind-boggling. Yet there is a balletic grace to the transition and the cast seem entirely comfortable and as a result the audience can relax safe in the knowledge that any sense that it will spiral out of control is all intended.
The Boy Who Kicked Pigs is a hugely enjoyable guilty pleasure for adults, a knowing indulgence in a story that has been lovingly recreated by the company. It would also be absolutely perfect for a teenage audience: if this doesn’t convince a class of Year 9’s that theatre can be, at the very least, an enjoyable experience then there really is no hope left.
Civilian Theatre is an Awards Partner Reviewer for the Mimetic Festival. For further enquiries please email firstname.lastname@example.org