We remember from childhood, don’t we, the Grimm (very grim) story of Hansel and Gretel? Where, at the insistence of their wicked stepmother, the two children are taken out into the forest and left to starve? How they find the gingerbread house, are lured into eating it and are captured by the evil witch? And how they are both saved by clever Gretel tricking the evil witch by luring her into the oven which was intended for them? And how they found their way home with help from a friendly duck only to discover the stepmother had died and their distraught father is welcoming them with open arms?
But why is this play in the Salberg studio called Hansel? If you’re going to make a drama out of this story, shouldn’t it be about the heroine? I don’t think this is the only adjustment we’re going to have to make.
We have a forest, of course. It fills most of space in front of the backdrop and actually reaches the ceiling. We can only admire its construction.
The acting space is taken up with the kind of household clutter we’re familiar with (although not in our own houses, of course not), the result of elderly Edith’s (Elizabeth Counsell) passion for car boot sales and auctions. Is she the wicked witch then? Surely not. Not if you consider how she cares for the homeless teenager, Hansel (Lee Rufford), keeping him supplied with tuna sandwiches and, when the weather’s particularly harsh, a comfortable bed in her deceased son Paul’s room.
Then we have Viv, Edith’s 49-year-old daughter, played by Zara Ramm. It’s quite obvious, from the moment of her first entrance, that she’s no Gretel. With no consideration for her mother’s feelings, she ruthlessly begins her regular three-monthly routine of sorting her mother’s stuff, ready for the arranged arrival of a large skip.
And when she discovers the presence of teenager Hansel she threatens to call the police (fortunately her phone is outside the range of a signal). She is definitely not Gretel.
No. We’re not meant to like Viv. We are especially resentful of her treatment of her brother when they were children, and are quietly thankful that she has none of her own. And watching Edith’s interaction with Hansel as they look at photographs and invent joyful stories about their imaginary relatives, we realise, sadly, that she would have made the most wonderful, much loved gran and are grateful she, at least, has Hansel.
But it’s not just accommodating Viv’s insensitivity that Edith finds difficult and frightening. As she realises how closely old age is affecting her life, admitting that "it’s scary when you can’t remember and scarier when you can," Hansel is ever more important to her, both practically and emotionally, and has, in effect, replaced her dead son.
We feel for Edith, then, and for Hansel. We care about them both. And, on what is a freezing cold night with unseasonal snow, we know that as we leave the theatre we are going to have to walk through the underground car park where the rough sleepers are already bedding down in their pitifully inadequate sleeping bags and we think of Hansel in his tree...
A thoughtful and deeply moving play, then, from Shiona Morton, who last year won the playwright’s prize for Theatre Fest West.
I for one, greatly look forward to her next play appearing at the Playhouse.
Reviewer: Anne Hill