A notable percentage of the Beetlemania: Kafka for Kids! audience today were Fringe royalty. Perrier-nominated parenting happens here! It felt a bit like stepping into a sort of live-action Fringe version of Hello-magazine, a place where one can compare one’s own hair, outfit, parenting-style and child to real-life actually famous comics and their genuinely charming partners and offspring. Of course, there’s no guarantee that every show’s audience will feature panel-show favorites, but it wouldn’t be surprising. Beetlemania is the sort of comedy comedians love: self-aware, rich in references and wordplay, full of foolery and anarchic spirit. Tom Parry (Pappy’s) and highly celebrated director Russell Bolam put their critically acclaimed heads together and devised something that as fresh-feeling as it is hilarious. The show has great appeal for Montessori-type mums, being, let’s face it, a bit earnest and worthy sounding “Oh yes, Otto loved the Kafka you know?”
Otto did love the Kafka. All the children did. This is an incredibly engaging and fun show for even the very young. It doesn’t sound like it would be- Kafka’s quite complicated, famously. A bit dry? Yeah. And if to explain that the play is a meta-textual exploration of his recurring themes and lasting literary value, it might not help. But really, you need have read no Kafka to enjoy this show, (although if you have, there are plenty of brilliant little references to feel smug about, and the mental juxtaposition between the original Bucket Rider where the sky is “a silver shield against anyone who looks for help from it,” and the Beetlemania version where the bucket is played by a brown box, and the Bucket Rider himself is made from another brown box, with stamps for eyes, which nevertheless convey an incredible soulfulness thanks to excellent puppetry).
What is so joyous about this show is that rather than simplify, it celebrates complication, rejecting the very idea of simplistic or formulaic endings. “It’s not happy or sad, sometimes it’s just a mess: it’s Kafkaesque,” goes one memorable refrain. These fabulous songs – uplifting numbers like ‘We’re All Nobodies’, a cheery take on existentialism, combined with wonderfully inventive prop use – keep things lively. A zany retelling of Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor manages to be utterly irreverent yet nevertheless to convey the spirit of the original. Kafka’s obsession with the labyrinthine and spiritually erosive nature of bureaucracy is explored through farce and slapstick, yet this comedy of errors is wonderfully crafted to resonate with tiny brains.
This may be the most intelligent kid’s show this Fringe, and is, no doubt, also one of the silliest.