In the cutthroat cold of a December afternoon, smoke rises out of London's Parliament Square. Makeshift missiles— chunks of kerb, bits of wood—cascade through the air, aimed at police lines set up around the perimeter. The roads are smattered with paint. Placards are being burnt and metal fences used as battering rams. Occasionally police horses charge towards the crowd as thousands of students voice their anger over tuition fees.
That same evening, a little under three miles down the road, 1927’s new show opens at the Battersea Arts Centre and the very same scene seems to reoccur onstage.
In Paul Barritt’s animation, hoards of stick-figure children tear up a municipal park. They set fire to lampposts and leap onto ice cream vans. The city’s youth is revolting. Their demands: “Better living conditions, better education and,” in an eagle-eyed sideswipe at the so-called post-ideological generation, “an Xbox for every child.”
“We didn’t set out to make a political show at all,” says Suzanne Andrade, the company’s writer, performer and, alongside Barritt, co-founder. “1927 are out to entertain. It’s what we do and, I think, what we do best, but individually we have various interests and involvements in more political activities and ideas, which inevitably feed into the work we make.”
It would be several steps too far to suggest that The Animals and the Children Took to the Streets, which 1927 devised over two years, preempted last winter’s student protests. However, its parallels with today’s political and economic climate are too many to dismiss as mere coincidence.
Its setting is a city divided by wealth, in which flash skyscrapers sidle up against a disaffected ghetto, known as The Bayou. Overpopulated, lawless and filthy, Andrade’s text describes it as “a fully-furnished shithole” and “someone else’s bad dream.”
In 1927’s world, as in ours, unrest is bred from inequity. More pertinent than the student protests, Andrade suggests, is one London borough’s recent decision to charge residents entry to their local park.
“The Bayou is a place completely ignored by the rest of the city; a cockroach-infested building wriggling with perverts and problems. Once you’re there, it’s very hard to get out and it festers away unnoticed.”
While touring their previous show internationally, the London-based company spent time in Hong Kong. There they visited Chungking Mansions, a series of five tower blocks in the centre of Kowloon that house around 4,000 people at any given time. Its run-down corridors are teeming with shop fronts, street sellers and touts, all hawking their wares at full volume.
“That had quite an impact, but we were also inspired by areas in London that are bubbles of wealth and artsy goings-on, completely disconnected to the communities around them. We wanted to reflect and distort certain things we see in London, but keep the tone silly and funny despite a sinister edge.”
That’s characteristic of 1927. Their last show, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, was a cabaret of deliciously wicked pop-gothic vignettes. The trick up its sleeve lay in the interaction of live action and projected animation. Cartoon arrows pierced performers’ heads and sepia-toned lithographs sprang to life. Accompanied by a tumbling piano score, it felt like a silent film possessed and running amok in an empty auditorium.
The technique, which has been refined for The Animals…, wowed both critics and audiences alike at the 2007 Fringe and 1927 left Edinburgh with a sackful of awards. There was also interest from international venues, including the Sydney Opera House, who would later commission a second show in partnership with the BAC.
“We weren’t expecting anything like it. It just went mental,” Andrade says, as if still in disbelief four years on.
Returning to Edinburgh for the first time since, the company are preparing themselves themselves for a more muted response: “To have that success at the Fringe every single year, you have to go back and make that explosion, because everyone seems to be looking for something new. You have to keep reinventing yourselves and that’s not what we want to do.”
“On my to-do list for two years has been ‘make a show.’ Now the difficult second album is done. As long as audiences keep coming and as long as they keep enjoying it, then that’s enough. It’s more than enough.”