Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Hansel and Gretel

Adapted by Stephen Sharkey from the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm
Northern Stage, Newcastle
(2008)

Production photo

After last year's superb A Christmas Carol and this year's lovely show for the under-6s, The Goblin Who Saved Christmas, Hansel and Gretel was always going to have to reach a very high standard to stand comparison. Sadly it doesn't quite make it.

There's much that is good (indeed, very good) about it. I loved Neil Murray's somewhat spare design and it is impossible to fault the actors. The schools' audience at the show I attended thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Indeed, the storm of cheering which greeted the opening showed that they were well up for being entertained and they were clearly involved throughout.

There were some lovely moments. The Beast of Kielder (played by Pat Dunn) swallowing Hansel whole was very effectively done and his re-emergence later (I'm not giving away anything here: we all know the story!), covered with green slime, was equally impressive. The idea of having the Moon (played by Victoria Elliott - on a trapeze, no less - as a mixture of AbFab's Bubbles and one of Victoria Wood's creations) watching over the children gave a nice additional twist to the story.

The characters, too, were well conceived - and played. Scott Turnbull's Hansel is almost impossibly nice and lovable, whereas the older Gretel (Lisa McGrillis) has all the stroppy, sulky moodiness of the young teenager. I bet she will be recognised by a lot of parents in the audience! Tony Neilson as their gentle father is torn between his love for his children, as well as his need to cherish them in memory of their dead mother, and the desire to placate his extremely pregnant second wife (played with delicious nastiness by Libby Davison). Pat Dunn's Beast is totally and utterly horrible, the kind of character kids love to hate, and Steve Hawksby's Saint Nicholas is a commanding figure for good. Laura Norton is a silkily feline cat and an endearing 12-year old Sue, and the chorus, made up (as last year) of students from Newcastle College, show that there is a good up-and-coming generation of NE actors.

So what's the problem? In an effort to expand the Grimm (and grim) story to a full-length play, author Sharkey has introduced the idea of Hansel and Gretel running away from their home on the edge of Kielder Forest to Scotland, giving him the opportunity to add some comic relief in the form of stereotypical Scotsmen (even down to the tartan caps with long ginger hair!) and jokes about sausages, together with a send-up Highland Fling, all of which tended to give this section of the first act an almost pantomimic air.

Now I'm a great panto lover, but this section felt to me completely out of place and, to be blunt, unnecessary. The pantomimic air dilutes the darkness of the tale rather than emphasising it through contrast, which was presumably the intention.

Where Sharkey sticks with the plot, the tale is compelling and the second half grips all the way.

However the kids loved it, so perhaps cynical old reviewers should just shut up. What do we know?

Reviewer: Peter Lathan