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THEATRE REVIEW Kneehigh drum up troubling totalitarian metaphor

GIVEN the current political climate, it’s easy to empathise with Oskar. On his third birthday, he decides to stop growing in protest against the world.

But that antipathy for human greed and folly starts early. Even before his umbilical cord has been cut, the narrator of Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum pleads to be returned to the amniotic sac after Alfred — one of two “presumptive fathers” — sketches out his future as a greengrocer.

Set against a turbulent period in Europe’s history, starting with the conception of his mother Agnes in 1899 and taking in the rise of nazism — here renamed unspecifically as the Order — and Kristallnacht.

A famously unwieldy book that veers between magic realism, historical document and myth, Grass’s novel has been considerably condensed and streamlined for this stage adaptation by Kneehigh.

Writer Carl Grose and director Mike Shepherd have taken an energetically playful, though at times confusing, approach that’s based on the epic poem form.

A constantly shifting cast create visual overload as police chase Oskar’s arsonist grandfather Joseph into the audience, the contents of a toy store come alive and paper windows are shattered by the narrator’s wide-eyed howl of wrath.

There’s a similar overload with the dialogue, some of which is impeded by a muddied sound mix in what comes across as a folk opera-cum-musical.

Oskar’s other presumptive father Jan (Damon Daunno) repeatedly soars into a comedy falsetto while the delivery of Alfred (Les Bubb) is as pedestrian as his personality.

Charles Hazlewood’s synth score, tied to no musical period or style, and reflecting the characters’ personalities, allows Oskar’s tin drum to create a sound that’s as dramatic as the one in his puppet head as he bangs it for change.

This is at its most effective when he interrupts an Order rally — the staging of which could be taken from a Lady Gaga video — with the mechanical puppet movements of The General’s followers liberated by his rhythm.

The repeated cry of “Vive la difference!” and the circular nature of the play, politicises it in a way that Oskar’s actions never overtly signal.

And it means that, for all its chaotic humour, its inherent darkness makes it a story for these troubled times.

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