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Hansel and Gretel

Jeff Young
Unity Theatre with Hope Street Limited and Action Transport Theatre
Unity Theatre, Liverpool
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The staff are friendly, smiling and helpful—with the aid of a brush and pan, a serious spillage of “hundreds and thousands”, just prior to curtain up, is dealt with cheerfully and patiently. This is just what you need if you arrive, as many of the grown-ups have, with a clutch of lively and impatient 4-9 years-olds.

The auditorium is intimate and packed with the tiny (in stature not numbers) audience and their chaperones.

On stage, the tree (which will also serve, first as the children’s home and then the witch’s) illuminates and comes to life as our storyteller. “Everything will work out well,” he reassures us, “...in the end.”

And off we go, on an adventure concerning ‘two little children, good enough to eat.’

Becky Illsley carries off her role as Hansel, the irritating younger brother, infuriating yet somehow lovable, and Shawney Ross’s Gretel makes a long-suffering yet determined big sister. Holly Wilson-Guy (Stepmother) and Jay Davies (Father) both seem happier in their second roles (as Witch and Crow, respectively), where the script and the director give them more to play with. In fact, Nina Hajiyianni’s direction throughout could give the cast more fun and frolic, for their young audience’s interest and amusement.

The first act is a little bit overlong—though there is just enough to hold the children’s attention. In act two, where there is more clowning and the cast warm to their roles, the children (the real ones in the audience, that is) are more engaged. The biggest laugh of the afternoon is for Crow’s forward tumble (children always love to see adults come a cropper—especially villainous adults). The best special effect is when the child-munching witch gets her come-uppance, with impressive pyrotechnics in the oven.

Hansel and Gretel is a difficult story for 21st century kids to grasp—not so much the wicked stepmother as the downtrodden father who goes along with the desperate plan to abandon his two hungry children in the woods. Jeff Young’s otherwise competent script might have benefited from providing the errant dad with some way of demonstrating contrition (either a monologue or some more prolonged and emotionally truthful reconciliation scene). But there is fun (and not too much fright) for children and adults alike—my particular favourite being the witch’s recipe for ‘Steak and Kiddie Pie’.

Patrick Dineen’s music is well judged, and the song lyrics are often bright and fun, though the volume of the pre-recorded music could be reduced to allow the singing actors chance to be heard without straining. Alexandra Morton’s set is simple yet effective—the woods neatly created with a backdrop and a single row of “trees”. Phil Saunders makes full use of his experience with an excellently atmospheric and evocative lighting design—moonlight in the forest is beautifully evoked.

In the end, with Hansel and Gretel restored to their loving father, the mean stepmother departed and the even meaner witch thoroughly roasted, the parents and small children of our audience depart, smiling and chatting. That’s really all you need to know about a Christmas show, isn’t it?

Reviewer: Martin Thomasson