Hansel and Gretel

Mike Kenny, music by Beccy Owen and Adam Kent
Northumberland Theatre Company
Arts Centre Washington and touring

Hansel and Gretel, Northumberland

Probably the best way to see this production is, as I did, in an audience mainly made up of very young primary school children. If it can hold their attention for an hour and a half, including interval, then it’s a success.

And a success it is, for they sat totally fascinated throughout—and so did I.

It begins with us meeting a family—Hansel (Louis Roberts), Gretel (Rachel Gay), Father (Mervyn Dickinson) and Mother (Justine Adams)—who are very hungry. It’s been a bad year and now it’s winter. They’ve no food, just one small bag of flour left, and no money to buy any because no one in the surrounding villages can afford to buy the wood that woodcutter father has to sell. What are they to do? How can they survive?

Playwright Mike Kenny loves telling stories, particularly scary ones, and children love hearing them because, no matter how scary they might be, if they are told in “the most comfy place possible” by “the person who loved you most”, they can face “the worst they can imagine”.

So that’s what he does: he has the family swap the storytelling between them as they all act it out, so the children in the audience know that really it’s alright because it is just a story and they can be scared and reassured at the same time.

It’s all there: mother and father abandoning Hansel and Gretel in the depths of the wood, being saved the first time by the trail of pebbles Hansel leaves and then the second time, forced to use breadcrumbs which are eaten by the birds, wandering until they come across the gingerbread house where the evil witch fattens up Hansel so she can eat him. But they destroy the witch and all her spells are undone so they are able to return home safely.

The family dynamics are spot-on. Hansel, who begins the story, may be the oldest and the boy but it is the youngest and the girl, Gretel, who finishes it and creates the happy ending.

The performances are beautifully pitched: characterisation tends towards the child’s storybook, there is some effective mime in the treks through the wood, and simple puppetry gives us a little mouse, birds and the scary wild animals in the forest. Dickinson and Adams also play the Mouse which the Witch makes large and the Witch herself as well as operating most of the puppets. The songs, too, are appropriate to the audience and add to the performance rather than interrupting it or slowing it down.

This is the first show I’ve seen this Christmas, panto or otherwise, about which I have no reservations!

“Hansel and Gretel” runs at Arts Centre Washington until 17th December and then tours until 28th January, 2012.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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