What: Shockheaded Peter
Where: Theatre Inconnu, 1923 Fernwood Rd.
When: To Dec. 17
Rating: four (out of five)
If you enjoy the dark humour of Lemony Snicket or Edward Gorey, you’ll probably enjoy a strange little musical that just opened at Theatre Inconnu.
In this 90-minute romp, misbehaving kiddies meet their ends in all sorts of delightful ways. Their deaths are portrayed by a gaggle of oddballs, most in quasi-Victorian attire. Accompanying the whole jolly mess are dour musicians in white-face, the kind of decadent quartet one might have encountered in a Berlin nightclub circa 1937.
Theatre Inconnu has revived the 1998 musical Shockheaded Peter, an award-winning show based on the 19th-century children’s book Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffmann. In both the book and show, youngsters encounter a gruesome comeuppance for minor misbehaviours, such as failing to eat soup or thumb-sucking.
In tattered top hat and tails, a well-cast Bindon Kinghorn plays a gleefully malicious master of ceremonies/circus barker, guiding us through the shenanigans while providing snarky asides. At the outset, he advises those of a “weak constitution” to leave immediately, giving us a clue the proceedings aren’t for the faint of heart.
Later Kinghorn summarizes the musical’s intent, declaring: “Sometimes we have to be cruel to be kind. Sometimes we have to be cruel for… you know, recreational purposes.”
We soon meet a couple expecting a child, carried in by a fabulous six-foot stork puppet (all puppets are created by the imaginative Timothy Gosley, who has done a spectacular job). It turns out the tot is Shockheaded Peter, an unfortunate waif with witch-like nails and a massive thatch of curly black hair. He appears in fully grown, grotesque, anatomically correct form in the finale.
The show is a collection of vignettes. They include:
• A girl in ringlets (the talented Melissa Blank) lights matches and promptly burns to death. The blaze is portrayed with low-tech cleverness; her petticoats — brilliant reds and yellows — flip up in inferno-like fashion. Two risible cat puppets mew unhappily. Cam Fulham, who plays Shockheaded Peter’s boozing father and other roles, notes deadpan: “She’s burned to death and we told her so.” Meanwhile the musicians (banjo, accordion, double-bass, drums) bang out a jaunty waltz.
• A hare turns the tables on a green-jacketed hunter, chasing him with a musket and eventually dispatching his prey. The hare turns out to be a serial killer, not only blasting everyone in sight, but ultimately turning the gun on himself. Bassist Brin Porter shouts “Pow! Pow!” as the shots are fired. The characters are puppets, adding greatly to the fun (and softening the gruesomeness of the scene).
• Blank sings sweetly while a boy (again, a puppet) is wafted up to the heavens because he refuses to let go of his blue umbrella in windy weather. A strange mix of yearning and tragedy, this is the show’s most poetic and poignant scene.
The solid cast includes Wendy Cornock and Rosemary Jeffery. The band (Porter, Taylor Charles, Donna Williams and Sean Gallant) offer pared-down arrangements that suit the thrift-shop feel of the proceedings.
Director Clayton Jevne has designed a highly functional set, painted in a crude and theatrical way. Risers flip up to become a puppet theatre. There are wonderfully bold cut-out props, such as a sun, a cloud and fish. One scene offers deft shadow puppetry.
Overall, the aesthetic is deliberately rough-hewn and simple. It works well — it’s like a demented, itinerant troupe from another time has mysteriously surfaced in Victoria.
This one will appeal to young folk 10 and older as well as adults. If you find traditional Christmas entertainments saccharine and wholesome, Shockheaded Peter may be just the palate cleanser you’re looking for.