Review: The Tin Drum (UnSpun Theatre)

The Tin Drum Unspun Theatre photo by Keith Barker

This intricate adaptation of the famous novel, The Tin Drum, is brought to life at Toronto’s Aki Studio Theatre

The Tin Drum, playing at the Aki Studio Theatre, is based on the famous novel of the same name by Günter Grass and follows the story of Oskar Matzarath. Oskar is born in the city of Danzig (now Gdańsk) in the 1920’s and immediately has the preternatural self-awareness to realize that life is safer, easier and more comfortable as a child. He wills himself to stop growing after the age of three.

Three is his age of choice because his mother has promised to give him a drum as a third birthday present. Once he has his gift, he drums constantly, and carries on as if his mental development stopped along with the physical, in order to have the protection and indulgence of adults. The four adults in his life are his mother, his mother’s husband Alfred (who may be his father), his mother’s cousin and secret lover Jan (who may also be his father), and Jan’s wife Hedwig.

Oskar finds his mother’s adultery distasteful, but for her, coupled with her own guilt and grief over Oskar’s supposed condition, it is unbearable. And soon World War II comes to complicate what’s left of Oskar’s idyll.

Oskar takes everything in stride. He travels, has a couple of romantic/sexual liaisons, and always keeps his eyes on the prize: as long as he and his drum are safe and together, everything is fine.

This doesn’t, of course, mean that everything is fine for the people in his life, and he is very often a catalyst for bad things happening to them. The narrative is framed as a life story Oskar tells as a patient in a mental hospital years after the war.

It’s a very ambitious novel to try to stage and UnSpun Theatre has made an admirable effort. The adaptation itself must have been a job of work, and I think they did very well at picking out the salient and most theatrical parts of the story and molding them together in a way that could be followed.

I loved the set, which had multiple levels and surfaces, such as tables and beds, to work with as well as curtains and an odd but perfectly placed small platform that is a seat in one scene and a pedestal in another.

The cast was very energetic and in sync with each other. They all had multiple roles (except for Jesse Aaron Dwyre who played Oskar) and moved between them with ease.

Dwyre was a good casting choice for Oskar, being very capable as well as slight of build. However, a move off the page is often fraught with not being able to measure up to images created in the mind when reading. A lot of what is really compelling about The Tin Drum as a novel is imagining this person who looks, sounds, and usually acts, like a three year old engaging in licentiousness and deadly guile.

I also think it’s more difficult to carry off an unsympathetic protagonist in a play than in a novel. This is likely due to there being so much more material in a book. A protagonist in a novel has room to be unsympathetic but also a myriad of other qualities, some of them contradicting.

As usual with adaptations of full length novels, I recommend reading the book to really appreciate the story.  (I also recommend that theatre and film makers select short stories and novellas for adaptation instead of full length novels; they almost always work much better.) But I can’t imagine a staging of The Tin Drum that could be better than this, and it’s a grand diversion for two and a half hours.


  • The Tin Drum plays at Aki Studio Theatre until December 14th
  • Shows are Monday to Friday at 8pm and Saturday at 2pm & 8pm
  • Tickets are $25 for evening shows and $15 for matinees
  • Purchase tickets by calling (416) 531-1402 or online

Photo by Keith Barker provided by the company