Posted on September 23, 2010
With its backdrop of graffiti-covered walls, the convincingly grubby-looking set is littered with the detritus of urban life: a traffic cone, a shopping trolley, a decrepit sofa. So far, so predictable. But the stereotype works precisely because it is a stereotype, and that is the crux of this captivating piece of dance theatre.
Pied Piper may seem at first glance to be a somewhat heavy-handed attempt at satire, whacking the audience over the head with the low-concept re-imagining of Hamelin’s rats as ASBO teens, but to criticise the simplistic treatment is to miss the point – which is surely that we should all recognise our own towns, teenagers and tabloids in this vivid microcosm of fractured society.
Concealed beneath their black hooded tops, the “rats” swarm across the stage as a furtive, faceless mass, which is of course how this seething, disenchanted underclass is perceived by the “decent” townsfolk. Amid the obligatory strobe lighting and dry ice, the performers demonstrate an astonishing synchronicity – there’s something almost mechanical about their absolute togetherness, which will eventually take a more sinister turn as the youngsters are hypnotised and abducted by the vengeful Piper.
Driven by a pounding beat that shakes the whole auditorium, the largely instrumental, vaguely distorted soundtrack throws in synthesised strings to evoke a rodent-like squeaking; recalling the “fifty different sharps and flats” of the Robert Browning poem on which the show is based.
A giant screen flickers into life with familiar soundbites about gun crime, antisocial behaviour and cleaning up the streets before asking, “Who will rid us of this vermin?” The unenviable task falls to the town governors, whose literal portrayal of bumbling bureaucracy provides moments of pure comedy and adds a much-needed lighter note to the otherwise ominous proceedings – their deceptively simple costumes are a spot-on stroke of genius.
When the boiler-suited, white-trainered Piper (Boy Blue Entertainment’s founder and choreographer Kendrick “H2O” Sandy) body-pops his way on to the stage, the scene is set for a series of stylised face-offs between the mercenary and the miscreants. A trawl through his CV showcases the Piper’s successes with infestations of vampire bats and scorpions, generating further feats of agility as the dancers twist their bodies into interpretations of the errant creatures before being casually dispatched by their ice-cool, crafty nemesis.
There’s plenty of invention in the slow motion tussles, which combine funky street dance with elements of martial arts (and some slightly more clownish mucking about with bin bags) but wisely the weaponless violence is strictly unglamorous.
Special mention must be made of the simple yet wonderful lighting effects, whether it’s the harsh yellow glow of a streetlamp illuminating the rats’ dingy den; blood-red spotlights casting sexy silhouettes of the flexible female dancers; or the use of ultraviolet light picking out the performers’ white-gloved hands.
The masterful choreography of the final showdown contrasts the twitchy, scurrying “rats” with the Piper’s smooth groove, as he waits nonchalantly for them to finish their macho posturing before taking on all comers in a hugely enjoyable battle sequence. Having seen off the hordes, who disappear into the glare of an incandescent white light (nice idea in principle, but blinding the audience is never a good move), there’s no doubt he’s earned his money – but we all know how this story turns out.
However, the unhappy ending of the age-old cautionary tale provides a showcase for the youngest members of the troupe to do their stuff, and for the audience – which, judging by the inordinate amount of cheering and whooping, was largely made up of the cast’s friends and family members – to marvel at their back-flipping, head-spinning antics. There’s some genuine talent here, confirming Blue Boy’s ability to bring out the best in its young protégés.
Updating the Pied Piper legend to a modern urban setting could have come across as a contrived, ham-fisted way of pressing home a point. That the show actually manages to avoid a clichéd feel is testament to the breathtakingly powerful performances of all concerned.