A young woman with a wicker basket picks flowers in the woods; a horned figure, half man and half beast, creeps up behind her. It sounds like a scene from a fairytale - and in a sense, that’s exactly what it is. We soon learn we’re in a sleepy village on the side of a mountain in Germany; the monster’s just a man in a mask, and the flowers are props for a festival of folklore. But the man’s spent the last four years away from home… and the conversation that follows this reunion is an uneasy one.
The festival in question is in honour of the Krampus, a devilish counterpoint to Santa Claus who metes out terrible punishments to naughty children at Christmas time. The blood-curdling tradition would give anyone nightmares, and the unexpected visitor is clearly on edge. So what’s he afraid of, in this clearing in the woods? Why’s he come back here? What was it, in fact, that ever drove him to leave?
It’s as clear as clear could be that there’s a Big Terrible Secret, and that we’ll find out what it is by the time the curtain falls. When the revelation comes, is it Terrible indeed - but it’s soon forgotten as the plot moves on to a second Big Terrible Secret, which is more-or-less unrelated to the first. By the time we got to the third Big Secret, which is Terrible in a very different way, my reaction was less shock and sympathy and more “here we go again”. It’s all too much; each of the reveals loses impact by being forced to jostle with the other ones.
It feels to me too that Black Peter hasn’t quite decided on a style. At times it prickles with horror, yet whenever there’s a moment of skin-crawling tension it’s almost immediately defused. With its complex back-story of self-fulfilment and desertion, it would work equally well as a psychological drama, or as a commentary on the nature of forgiveness. But these are all all different genres, with their own demands and tempo - and the play suffers from its lack of commitment to any of them.
Still, the general backdrop of trauma is painted well; farmer’s daughter Annika speaks matter-of-factly about a mass slaughter of diseased livestock, while the visitor shares an equally hideous tale about the fate of a man who tried to cross the Berlin Wall. The details are nicely conceived and the emotion portrayed is believable, even if some of the storyline isn’t. There are neat reminders of the early-nineties setting as well, including a good old-fashioned boombox and a mobile phone with an aerial you have to pull out to make a call.
Without doubt, Black Peter is a quality production: strongly acted, confidently delivered and boldly styled. It builds a promising story and sows intriguing mysteries, all the time reminding us on the distinctive time and place in which it’s set. There’s a lot to enjoy here, and I’m glad I went to see it… but in terms of its core storytelling, I suggest that less would be more.