Hansel and Gretel

Carl Grose
Kneehigh Theatre
Southbank Centre
(2010)

Hansel and Gretel production photo

On the wide, plain stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Kneehigh have plonked their set: a dome-like construction of interconnected steel girders, with various ropes, pulleys and other bits and bobs dangling from them. It's very fitting, firstly because it is made to be interacted with - all sorts of clambering, tinkering, winching and pulling goes on - and this is a show about making the best of the environment you find yourself in and the resources at hand.

But secondly, it is apt in that beyond the central circular stage area encompassed by the metal construction, impenetrable darkness stretches upstage. Kneehigh want to talk about the small worlds that families create with each other's company, and the limits of those worlds - what happens when children leave safety behind and venture into the unknown.

That's not to say Hansel and Gretel is any sort of dark theatrical essay on the psychological implications of fairy tales. That would be far too rigid; Kneehigh's freewheeling style absolutely forbids any forcing of an idea on the audience, any agenda-pushing. This is simply a jaunt - a very funny, sometimes poignant show with a great open heart, and a high level of ridiculousness.

We all know the set-up. Hansel and Gretel live in the woods with their mother and their father, the woodcutter. All is well until a terrible famine strikes, and the parents, unable to feed their children any more, take them out into the woods and leave them to fend for themselves.

In this version, Hansel is a loveable, dreamy swot, who manages to be quite dim in all practical matters while well-versed, through his beloved Encyclopedia, in the atomic structure of the universe. Gretel meanwhile is a cheerful, gawky tomboy and ingenious inventor. (Chris Price and Joanna Holden are, let's say, fairly physically different, but after one gag at the start about them being of course "identical", the subject is quickly left alone and we soon believe totally in their twinhood.)

What's particularly different about this version of the tale is how much more focus is given to the famine and hardship the family experience. Director Mike Shepherd and writer Carl Grose clearly want to create a deep sense of the family dynamic, and to have fun with this family's idiosyncrasies, before they separate them. So we have the father (played by Grose) as a genial joker, wasted as a woodcutter; and the mother (Edith Tankus) a strong, witty, no-nonsense provider. Too poor to afford fireworks, they mime them for the children's birthday party. Hansel's process of learning to be a man involves being taught a ferret homing call by his father - of course, what els?. For a long time we are basically watching the company play about: you feel a lot of rehearsal-room asides and inserts have been kept in, to now form the body of the final piece.

It's all fun to watch, but the famine sequence does go on a little too long, as in this version the children leave home, return, and leave again, while the situation gets worse and worse and the parents inch towards starvation.

It's when the children finally encounter the witch's cottage that the play really ups a gear. Grose and Tankus double as, respectively, the witch and her bird companion, a "Canadian peekaboo owl-hawk". Again, of course.

As the witch Grose is outrageously good. He/she begins in a floral housewife number and terrible blonde wig; masquerading as a benevolent "auntie". She and the bird dance a glorious number as they mime cooking the food that they lavish on the children. When her true witchiness is revealed she strips down to her silk shift and takes her wig off to reveal the nylon hairnet underneath - both grotesquely feminine and obviously male, she's a striking figure. Then she sings about how sweet is the flesh of little boys.

This portion of the play is very funny and very dark - it conveys a real visceral impression of gluttony, as Hansel, imprisoned in a cage dangling from the ceiling, eats uncontrollably, fattening himself up. But the company never stop with the jokey asides - "Thank you for applauding cannibalism" mutters the witch as the audience cheer his song. Possibly the most bizarre diversion is the brief swerve into the history of the mad, homesick Canadian bird, whose name means "she who dances alone for long periods of time".

The musicians stationed beside the stage - TJ Holmes and Benji Bower - provide a lovely, constant pulse of atmosphere below all the action, helping the irrepressible flow of the piece. Rather than be ignored by the actors, they're handily woven into the story as "Johann and Wilhelm, the musical neighbours from across the valley", and there are some nice bits of metatheatrical interaction as Holmes and Bower occasionally down their instruments to contribute to the conversation happening on stage.

My favourite of the "superfluous" elements is the duo of narrator rabbits - gorgeous squishy puppets with beautifully realistic quivering front legs and twitching heads. They comment wryly on the children's fate, they break into snatches of song when bored or scared ("Bright Eyes" being an obvious favourite), and they depart occasionally from conversation along the lines of "I like grass" / "Me too", to expostulate on the meaning of life.

Really there are so many glimpses of ideas, moments of inventiveness, littered throughout the play that you could almost say they're gilding the lily of the main story. But it's this willingness to luxuriate in the joy of creativity itself that is so lovely.

Some of the nicest design touches come when Hansel and Gretel are first lost in the woods and we first glimpse the witch - the stage goes dark, smoke pours everywhere, a chandelier of knives is suddenly swinging above them, and the witch appears, madly cackling, riding a bicycle, in overcoat and goggles. It evokes a sort of chaotic steampunk aesthetic, but this is not returned to again later in the play - as though the show is so rich in ideas that it can simply scatter them at will, and need not get more than a single moment's use out of each. Complete aesthetic cohesion would be too neat, too pat.

And it's telling that Kneehigh credit sculptors and engineers alongside lighting designers, sound operators and so on; the stagecraft, in the truest, most physical sense of the word, is outstanding. The stage has been precision-engineered to allow for two stunning set-pieces in which various objects are rigged up to set each other off in a chain of cause-and-effect. Think the board game Mousetrap on a massive scale. I daren't say more for fear of spoiling the surprise. The point is that Kneehigh make theatre using the skills of every type of artist I can think of, and I don't know any other company who so much enjoy showing the audience where the joins are; and yet whose performances are so well, seamless.

Until 2nd January

Reviewer: Corinne Salisbury