1927 on cultural influences, multi-platform theatre and their success

Watching the trailer for theatre company 1927’s The Animals and Children Took to the Streets, plenty of influences are apparent: the melodramatic but muted characterisation and piano score of 1920s silent films; the Dickensian sense of foreboding that results from placing small children against a backdrop of looming buildings; the graphic novel-esque quality of the animations. But the thing that strikes me most – evident from the numerous glowing quotes that flash across the screen – is that 1927 is causing quite a stir.

After a run at the BAC over Christmas 2010 and at the National Theatre a year later, 1927’s The Animals and Children is not new to the London theatre scene. Or, in fact, internationally, having played across the world: “Because the work is so visual we found that people from different cultures and languages were able to relate”, says musician and performer Lillian Henley. But the production has not yet run out of steam and this Christmas it’s back at the National’s 890-seat Lyttelton Theatre, a theatre almost three times the size of the Cottlesloe Theatre, last year’s venue. So how did 1927 – a company co-founded by Suzanne Andrade (crector, writer and performer) and Paul Barritt (illustrator and animator) in 2006 – develop the success that is The Animals and Children?

“Suzanne, a long time ago, was working in different venues across London in cabaret settings,” says Henley, “and she met Paul, and they started off with his illustrations being projected in quite a lo-fi way, and she’d perform in front of the screens – so it started off quite organically with two directors. But quite quickly myself and Esme [Appleton, costume designer and performer] came on board.” They pooled their talents, created Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea and took it to Edinburgh in 2007 to great acclaim. Then came The Animals and the Children, which took the one-screen projection of Between the Devil and tripled it, enveloping the actors in three screens of animation.

The company’s separate professions have played an integral part in producing the work that has led 1927 to this point; Barritt’s animations are not simply a backdrop but are placed on an equal setting with the actors: cartoons and humans acting against one another. Add writing by Andrade, music by Henley and costumes by Appleton, and the company’s work truly is an example of multi-media theatre – a style that isn’t always the easiest to navigate: “The music and the actors all have to fit in with the film,” explains Henley, “So as apposed to a play, which can vary in length depending on pauses or dramatic moments, we are very much tied to the film length, so the show is never a minute over.”

Is that restrictive? “I suppose some actors might find the work we do quite limiting, because you have to hit a certain mark at a certain time, and there’s not much room for expressive movements because you have to make sure to fit in with the projection line. However, once you know your timings you can play within them, particularly the work I do as a pianist – my performance definitely does change each night because I’m reacting very much to what’s on stage.”

As well as being defined by its commitment to this tricky multi-platform performance style, 1927 is distinctive because of its aesthetic: a mix of different decades, artistic inspirations and cultural movements. Henley cites silent films and the “whole massive exciting period” of the 20s – the decade that gave the company its name – as being at the “core of what we do”, continuing, “We were inspired by early film animation like Betty Boop – actually, particularly Betty Boop, where there’s this slight sort of wonkiness and rhythm to the way it had been animated; we wanted to bring that in but without making it too ridiculous.”

In an effort to evade said ‘ridiculousness’, The Animals and Children is much more than simply an homage to Betty Boop and the Roaring Twenties. Henley mentions the 1950s, graphic novels and the work of illustrators such as Dave Gibbons (of Watchmen fame) as other elements that have seeped into their work to make sure “it wasn’t all 20s and silent films” and had the physicality necessary to “jump out to the audiences”.

And talking of audiences, with its unusual mix of dark humour, riotous children overturning the streets and animated cockroaches, what kind of theatre-goers does 1927 attract? Well, quite a variety of people – Henley says that although there’s a natural inclination to create theatre that is geared towards your peers (which, for 1927, is the late-twenties-early-thirties age group), The Animals and the Children has become a bit of an unintentional family hit. “We didn’t intend to make a family show at all, and it certainly isn’t just for children,” she says, “However, it’s been fantastic when you see these families coming out and their nine-year-old is imitating parts of the show, really getting into it – or when you hear a really gorgeous laugh from a kid and, you know, the penny’s dropped – you feel really excited when that happens.”

Despite 1927’s aesthetic appealing to children, the company’s theatrical impact extends beyond gorgeous laughs and imitations. With its story of the youth rising up to take part in street riots, The Animals and Children also carries a message about social problems – particularly considering that the riots of summer 2011 occurred shortly after their run at the BAC. But Henley insists: “We definitely don’t want to categorise ourselves as a political theatre company […but] perhaps through the entertainment there’s a slight dig or maybe a message, or something that’s thought-provoking, so that you’re not just sat back watching something entertaining and you don’t think about anything afterwards. It’s nice to hint at certain things we’re all concerned about.”

And with the company originally being based in Hackney, their surroundings have inevitably infiltrated their work. “When we were rehearsing we’d see different types of people walking around, and see how the area had changed – it definitely featured more and more as we were working on the show. It just kept on creeping in,” Henley says, before concluding, “Trying to combine both [political concerns and entertainment] tastefully, I think, was our main aim.”

A surreal mix of cultural inspirations, entertainment and the “really witty, dark” writing of Andrade (with some modest political undertones to boot), this year’s outing of 1927’s The Animals and Children may not be a typical Christmas production but – if past success is any indicator – it seems sure to fulfil Henley’s wishes: “as long as people come out and have a good time, we’re happy.” And as long as 1927 continue to make eccentric but wonderful theatre (a production of The Magic Flute in Berlin is scheduled, as well as an in-the-making show about, Henley hints, “the role of man in relation to machines”), I’m sure the theatre-going public will be happy too.

The Animals and Children Took to the Streets is playing at the Lyttelton Theatre from 12 December 2012-10 January 2013. For more information, see the National Theatre’s website. To keep up to date with 1927’s future projects see their website.