The Internet Theater Magazine of Reviews, Features, Annotated Listings


SEARCH CurtainUp



Etcetera and
Short Term Listings



LA/San Diego






Free Updates
NYC Weather
A CurtainUp Review
Shockheaded Peter
Shockheaded Peter Makes a Comeback
By Elyse Sommer

Original Shockheaded Peter review

Shockheaded Peter at the New Victory

" It almost makes me cry to tell
What foolish Harriet did befell. . ."
The special effect that seals Harriet's fate is a flaming red dress.
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
CurtainUp first reported on the macabre Grand Guignol charms of this inventive musical adaptation of Dr. Heinrich Hoffman's grimmer than the Grimm Brothers' grimmest tales when it played for just five performances at the Kennedy Center in DC. When I had a chance to see the show during a somewhat longer but still brief run at the New Victory Theater, I too was mesmerized by the stagecraft, performances and the Tiger Lillies' tantalizing music, especially Martyn Jacques' castrato crooning. Dr. Hoffman would no doubt be thrilled to see his answer to the sugar-laden stories that predominated children's literature in 1844 brought to such invigorating, entertaining life -- though the appeal is really more to adults than children.

In the five years since those first reviews were posted, the show has won new fans in its travels to many other stages. Now it's come back to the Big Apple for a longer stay. So how does it fare at the Little Shubert Theater on Theater Row? And does it hold up well enough to fill 500 seats for a healthy run?

With New York audiences' eyes glazing over at lifeless, charmless shows like Brooklyn and Good Vibrations, the bizarre charm of this "junk opera" comes like a fresh breeze from the Hudson. The Little Shubert is big enough to accommodate a large audience but not too big for the voices to require overmiking and sound cavernous. I would caution, however, that as a family show this strikes me even more now than at the New Victory as being subject to knowing the kids you plan to bring. I brought a 10 year-old who found the "Snip Snip" treatment of thumbs and "The Dreadful Story About Harriet and the Matches" too scary. Her 14-year-old sister liked the music of the Tiger Lillies but would have preferred a less measured pace. On second viewing I do think that the show would benefit from losing about 10 minutes.

While tickets at the Little Shubert cost more than they did at the family budget friendly New Victory, beer pocketbook theater goers take heart. Each performance will have 18 $20 tickets for the first row of the orchestra available by lottery 90 minutes before the performance (a limit of 2 per person). If you're lucky enough to nab a ticket, you can treat yourself to a goodie at The Little Pie Shop on 43rd Street. Another bargain hunter's option is to book the Thursday at 10pm performance at which all seats are just $25 (that performance time will attract the young adults who are likely to be the show's biggest fans).

Below the current production notes along with a song list (Tiger Lillies CDs are available in the lobby-- with the musicians, still in makeup and costumes, on hand to sign them for you).

Original Shockheaded Peter review at the Kennedy Center

Shockheaded Peter at the New Victory

Shockheaded Peter
Created by Julian Bleach, Anthony Cairns, Julian Crouch,Graeme Gilmour, Tamzin Griffin,Jo Pocock, Phelin McDermott, Michael Morris and The Tiger Lillies Martyn Jacques, Adrian Huge and Adrian Stout.
Directed by Julian Crouch & Phelim McDermott
Musical Director: Martyn Jacques
Performed by Julian Bleach, Anthony Cairns, Luther Creek, Graeme Gilmour, Tamzin Griffin, Paul Kandel, Rebecah Wild, Fred Berman, Ritt Henn, Kevin Townley, Josie Whittlesey. Editor's Note: There are some cast changes from performance to performance. The preview I attended featured: Julian Bleach, Martyn Jacques, Anthony Cairns, Tamzin Griffin, Grame Gilmour, Rebecah Wild, Adrian Huge and Adrian Stout
Music composed by Martyn Jacques; lyrics adapted by Jacques from Heinrich Hoffman
Production Design: Julian Crouch & Grame Gilmour
Costume Design: Kevin Pollard
Lighting Design: Jen Linstrum
Sound Design: Mic Pool & Roland Higham
Resident Director: Heidy Miami Marshall
Music Supervisor: Shawn Gough
Little Shubert Theatre, 422 West 42nd Street (9th Avenue/Dwyer Street) 12/239-6200
From 2/11/05; opening 2/22/05.
Tues, Wed, Fri, & Sat @ 8:00PM, Thurs @ 10:00PM (all tickets $25!) , Sat @ 3:00PM, Sun @ 2:00PM & 7:00PM.
Tickets $66.25, $50.75, $21.25
Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.
OK for kids ? -- the question mark here is a youngster's ability to deal with this scary stuff about parents who demand perfection. It also takes an appreciation of this deliberately slow pace by young and old. The interview with the show's British producer Michael Morris referred to at the end of my review of the New Victory production should be kept in mind. It stated that the show was never conceived as a children's show and that the few performances at which children predominated did not work and that he considered the ideal audience mainly composed of adults but with kids represented. This was the case at the New Victory (which recommended it for Kids of at least 12, and at the Little Shubert evening performance I attended at which the kids were very much in the minority.

The show planned for an extended run but even raves from The New York Times haven't led to runaway sales. Peter will meet his end 5/29/05
  • The Struwwelpeter Overture
  • Augustus and the Soup
  • The Story of Cruel Frederick
  • The Dreadful Story About Harriet and the Matches
  • Snip Snip
  • Bully Boys
  • Fidgety Phil
  • Johnny Head-in-air
  • Flying Robert
  • Schockheaded Peter

  • Original Shockheaded Peter Review at the Kennedy Center
    Shockheaded Peter, at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, only through October 3, is, in my memory, the most innovative piece of theatre to play that space. 

    Based on the so-called children's book, Struwwelpeter, written in the mid 19th-century  by Heinrich Hoffman, the current staged version manages to combine elements of grand guignol, melodrama, musical hall, farce, freak show, penny dreadfuls, and satire that doesn't just bite, 
    it swallows the audience whole.  Hoffman, whose day job was running a lunatic asylum (and, no, I did not make that up), did not care for the children's books available when his own children were young and so he wrote his own.  Hence Struwwelpeter, ten morality tales dealing with such malfeasance as thumb-sucking, fidgeting, not eating one's soup, and so on.   That these simple stories have been turned into a piece of "junk opera"  -- their term, not mine - by the Improbable Theatre, a troupe of very gifted English actors, designers and musicians - is really very remarkable.  But so is everything about this show. 

    From the moment the narrator (played brilliantly by Julian Bleach) enters, the audience is knocked off its guard.  The spindly Bleach, dressed in Dickensian robes (i.e. top hat and black coat with one (intentionally) ripped underarm seam) and over the top mortifying make up, deadpans lines about the "monsters in our minds."  He also announces that he is the greatest actor in the world and then proceeds to send up Sir Laurence Olivier and highly mannered, over-the-top acting.   Towards the end of the evening he chastises the audience, "You don't get it, Washington, do you?""  which, for some in the audience, is true. Washington is conventional;  Shockheaded Peter is not. 

    The set, which looks just like the toy theatres made by Pollack that generations of British children have grown up with, immediately makes one wonder what is wrong with this picture.  Then it hits:  this show is, in every way, a distortion of the truth.   Within the Eisenhower's proscenium, lies another proscenium arch, and another, and another.Some nine doors and windows and a trap in the floor are put to use often. The humans are taller than the door spaces.   When the script calls for a "withdrawing room,""two dimensional furniture is carried on to the stage by the players.  Puppets - made of what looks like soft foam -- with their handlers clearly visible, working alongside the actors, are integrated into the stories. 

    Shockheaded Peter is the macabre story of a young and childless couple who yearn for a baby.  Be careful, it says, what you wish for because when the stork (yes, there is a larger-than-life stork) arrives bearing its bundle, joy may not be what ensues.  In fact, the child has matted hair and long dirty fingernails and is somewhat grotesque.His imperfections are numerous and he definitely does not conform to the bourgeois ideal of a baby. Horrified by the infant, whom they name Peter, the formerly childless couple bury the offensive infant under the floorboards, only to witness in later years the grown child's emergence.  Be careful, says the narrator, we all have demons living underfoot.  Meanwhile, the audience is treated to ten stories in 105 minutes -- riffs on punishments fitting such crimes as playing with fire, sucking one's thumb, refusing to eat one's soup, fidgeting,  and so on. 

    A word about the music.  That too is indefinable.  Part music hall, part Piaf, with a bit of Weill thrown in, the Tiger Lilies - a trio led by singer and accordionist Martyn Jacques, accompanied by a drummer and a double bass, leave you panting for more.  They have already recorded several CD's (details below) and have a large cult following in Europe.  Jacques - and I do not wish to give away the surprise - has an extraordinary voice.  Is it falsetto, countertenor, heldentenor, or, dare I say it, castrato?  Hard to tell but it is sweet as is his tightly controlled performance. 

    Another example of the ensemble's many talents is that no one person is responsible for one facet of the production. The set is clever, the costumes are brilliant.  The voices are excellent - although some of the lyrics get lost in the cavernous Eisenhower Theater - and there isn't a bad performance So credit must and should be given to everyone involved with the Improbable Theatre .  Here are the names:  Julian Crouch, Phelim McDermott, Julian Bleach, Anthony Cairns, Graeme Gilmour, Tamzin Griffin, Jon Linstrum, Jo Pocock, Kevin Pollard, and Mic Pool. 

    Note: After its 5-performance run at the Kennedy Center ends October 3, Shockheaded Peter moves on to the Society for the Performing Arts in Houston Texas, from October 7 to 9, then on to the New Victory Theatre, 209 West 42nd Street, New York City, (212) 239-6200, from October 14 to 31, the perfect Halloween date.  If this show does not become a hit with New York's hip theatre crowd, I'll go to bed without my supper. 

    Reviewed by Susan Davidson September 30, 1999
    Shockheaded Peter at the New Victory
    shockheaded peter
    Here is cruel Frederick, see!
    A horrid wicked boy was he;
    He caught the flies, poor little things,
    And then tore off their tiny wings

    For his comeuppance Frederick was sent to bed with a bad-tasting tonic. Susan Davidson ended her report on this terrific new look at a grizzly children's tale stating "If this show does not become a hit with New York's hip theatre crowd, I'll go to bed without my supper." Well, no comeuppance for you, Susan. Tuck in your bib and bon appetit. The crowd I saw at the New Victory did indeed respond with a hip, hip and hurrah to the Improbable Theater Group's "junk opera." Given the show's short run I won't burden you with a lengthy second rappraisal so you can use the time to call up for a ticket and see it all for yourself.

    I would add that while the New Victory has a double balcony, it is not cavernous like the Kennedy Center so Martyn Jacques' amazing falsetto and all the lyrics come across very clearly. A word too about Susan's suggestion to leave the kiddies at home despite this being based on a book of rhymes for toddlers. The people at the New Victory box office bill the show as for those aged 12 and up. In an interview in The New York Times the show's British producer, Michael Morris bears this out. Morris admits that the show was never conceived as a children's show and that the few performances at which children predominated did not work. On the other hand, he sees it as a show for many audiences which works best when all those audiences, including kids, are represented. The matinee I attended had just the mix he considers ideal. Adults predominated but there was also a substantial sprinkling of youngsters, some no more than six or seven. I didn't hear one frightened scream. The predominant noise from the audience, young and old, was laughter.

    As someone who was raised on Struwwelpeter and has kept her nails neatly trimmed ever since, I might add that this inspired deconstruction has laid the childish tremblings it inspired (but not the fascination) to rest on a ripple of laughs. I think I'll grow myself some of those long purple nails I see on women whose nurseries contained only the most politically correct, non-scary books.

    Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 10/17/99 matinee performance
    Tales From Shakespeare
    Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co. Click image to buy.
    Our Review

    Mendes at the Donmar
    Our Review

    At This Theater Cover
    At This Theater

    Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
    Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide

    Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam
    Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam

    metaphors dictionary cover
    6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
    Click image to buy.
    Go here for details and larger image.

    The Broadway Theatre Archive


    ©Copyright 2005, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
    Information from this site may not be reproduced in print or online without specific permission from