If you go down to the woods today… you may find two abandoned children, a psychotic stepmother and a cannibalistic witch. Not, then, your usual festive fare but in New International Encounter’s adaptation Hansel and Gretel, one that complements the festive season perfectly.
A long time ago, in a land far, far away (or Central Europe as we are told) famine strikes Hansel and Gretel’s family. As their poor woodcutter father struggles to feed the family the children’s stepmother coerces her husband into abandoning his children in the forest. That the stepmother speaks in rapid Norwegian, Hansel in a strong Spanish accent, and the rest of the cast slip in and out of various European languages seems totally normal and natural for this pan-European continent.
Children are of course smarter than parents often give them credit for and young Hansel has a plan to find his way home. It’s a trick that works once but, on the second trip to the forest, nature intervenes and the young children have to face the brutal truth that within a candy-covered house lays a dark horror.
Alex Byrne’s vivid production has great fun with the Brothers Grimm source material and gives it a uniquely inventive theatrical treatment. Here, the whole theatre becomes a winter playground, the ensemble addresses the audience, go on a journey through the audience and aren’t afraid to irreverently mock each other, the source material, national stereotypes and theatrical convention. It’s a beautiful confection as wondrous as the gingerbread house itself – a mix of music, narrative, comedy and a deeply dark and terrible tale that somehow, despite the darkness and horror, evokes a warmness that seems perfect for the Christmas season. It’s testament to the honesty of the performances that we totally follow the progression of two dolls alongside their human counterparts as the young abandoned duo.
Set against a wintery woodland setting there are several moments of visual delight. The discovery of the gingerbread house, the demise of the witch, and the journey into the forest all conjured up with real care and creativity.
This is a true ensemble performance from a company clearly enjoying the material. Unai Lopez de Armentia and Stefanie Mueller’s Hansel and Gretel (Mueller also designs the production), Rew Lowe’s father, Mia Hawk’s Norwegian stepmother, and Carly Davis’ witch all played with total conviction. Davis is also responsible for a musical score that provides much joy, from eastern European folk inspired choral numbers to a gloriously un-PC anthem about the pleasures of eating children.
This Hansel and Gretel is truly a treat for all the family. Younger members of the audience will be spellbound by the music, the magic and the story; older ones revel in the knowing references, the mocking of theatrical convention and the sheer exuberant fun of it all.
Those who think a theatrical festive outing consists of a soap star, a dame and some lame jokes should head to the Junction in Cambridge to discover the real power of festive theatre. Hansel and Gretel may have been abandoned in the cold, dark forest but this is one magical journey worth making in all weathers and will warm the heart on even the coldest December night.
Originally written for The Public Reviews