Arriving through the maddening chaos of London traffic to Battersea Arts Centre, the strange yet familiar world of 1927 enveloped a childishly excited audience, many of whom joked knowingly with the 1920s style usherettes, eager to leave reality at the door in favour of this magical combination of German expressionist theatre, animation, song, dance, music and mime. Think Weimer German Kabarett with its social criticism of the times and the arch narration of the Kit Kat Klub from Bob Fosse's famous film and you have an idea of the atmosphere 1927 generate as soon as you arrive at this venue.
1927 are an astonishingly talented quartet, with Paul Bill Barrett providing the delightfully witty films and animations which wrap around the three female performers and give this production its’ creative chutzpah.
The story begins in a generic city divided between the haves in Parklands and the have-nots who languish in the Bayou tenements of Red Herring Street, the city's stinking, sprawling ghetto where 'It's so hard to keep the wolf from the door' as the theme song tells us. The children are like animals, swarming into the park and upsetting the tranquillity of their betters, so the mayor gives the green light to a scheme to drug them with 'granny's gumdrops' (on sale to the audience from obliging usherettes). Already, the suggestion of contemporary critique of a society that sees the next generation as a problem to be repressed rather than a future to be invested in was sending murmurs through the audience. Into this dystopian world, where an East European junk shop manageress who scoots when the police loom and whose daughter Zelda plans a militant uprising of child pirates, comes the philanthropic Agnes Eves and her anime daughter Evie. Agnes' naïve mission to improve the children with PVA glue and lentil art workshops is soon thwarted by the kidnap of Evie, carried off along with all of the Bayou children to a nightmarish prison to be zombiefied, giving the lugubrious but love-struck caretaker of Bayou Mansions the opportunity to mount a daring rescue. At this point the audience are given the opportunity to choose an ending, realist or idealist.
The story is told through the mesmerising songs and piano playing of Lillian Henley, while Esme Appleton plays the parts of Zelda and Agnes and Suzanne Andrade takes on the other roles and narrates, all three are accomplished cabaret performers, but it obviously the combination of talents which makes 1927 such an original and successful company. It is difficult to convey the fascination generated by this deliciously subversive show; the wit, humour and panache with which this extraordinary enterprise is carried off. It is art at its most artful. We are reminded by the high degree of self-conscious reference to the great traditions of early 20th century stage and screen that anything is possible and we are invited to contribute to what happens here and now. What better way to face into 2011?