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Hansel and Gretel

by on 15 December 2018

Magic and Menace

Hansel and Gretel

by Ciaran McConville, adapted from the fairy tale of the Brothers Grimm

RTK Productions at The Rose Theatre, Kingston until 6th January

A review by Mark Aspen

As a Christmas bonus, one of our younger critics,  Milly Stephens (aged 13) has also offered her thoughts on Hansel and Gretel . You can read Milly’s review here.

As a frequent visitor to Germany’s Black Forest, albeit in an open car in summertime, the setting of Hansel and Gretel should seem familiar, but in the winter of the Great Famine in fourteenth Century must have seemed a very different place. In the Rose Theatre’s production, the Black Forest of Hansel and Gretel takes us to a place of magic and of menace.

In 1812, the Brothers Grimm published Hansel and Gretel as part of their gathering of word-of-mouth folk tales. The Rose Theatre expands on this short snippet to bring a riveting story to the stage, a story that is both frightening and touching in equal measure, “a story about the magic that is in all of us”.

“Once upon a time”, starts all good fairy tales, and this one is no exception. As the play opens, a book, fully the height of the tall Rose stage, slowly opens to reveal a townscape outside the town hall. As the story progresses it transforms, as panels slide across each other and videoed images of exquisite examples of the illustrator’s art create a series of enchanted landscapes in a whimsical style somewhere between Aubrey Beardsley and Maurice Sendak. Set designer Adam Wiltshire and his team of lighting designer, Amy Mae, and video designers, Daniel Denton and Letty Fox, have created a mise-en-scène that is as delightful as it is inspired.

It is Christmas Eve in the walled town and the townsfolk celebrate their good fortune in having plenty to eat whilst neighbouring areas are badly affected by the famine. Gerhart, the town’s mayor, is popular with all, for this day is the day that he sends children of the deserving poor off on generous scholarships to improve their future. Or does he, for we hear him saying to himself, sotto voce, “What is the sacrifice of a child or two”?  J.J Henry plays Gerhart as a man very ill at ease, enjoying the adulation of the town’s people, but wrestling with an inner guilt.

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We next see J.J Henry, doubling in an entirely different role, that of the Blue Fairy, one of the inhabitants of Grub, a refuge in the forest where lost characters have a stockade, relatively safe from the tribulations of the forest. The motley band includes many ejected from their own fairy tales, including Rapunzel, Snow White and Pinocchio. Food parcels may occasionally flutter mysteriously in on colourful parachutes, but all are constantly fearful of attack. One protectoress of Grub is Red Riding Hood, hard-bitten, if only figuratively, by her encounters with the wolf, now fiercely self-assured, with a caustic wit cloaking a tender fidelity. Vanessa Fisher’s Red is a feisty action-woman, whilst Henry, nicely differentiated from Gerhart, plays Blue as a gentle giant, pragmatic but cautious, who sings that “life is never a fairy tale”, and warns that true life is “pretty Grimm”.

Blue may well so warn, for life has already rung true for Gerhart’s chosen children, the orphans, Hansel and Gretel. Gretel is open to the opportunity that Gerhart offers, but Hansel smells a rat. (Sibling spats and squabbles will stalk their escapades throughout this story – as always with brothers and sisters.) They are put in charge of Otto the Huntsman, who will guide them in the forest. However, before the magic storybook backdrop transmogrifies into the enchanted forest, snow falls in projection on the buildings and we see a rat scurry past.

Otto has immense misgivings about his task, now repeated many times, as he knows that he must leave the children at an appointed spot in the forest, and there give them a sleeping draft, abandoning them to their fate. This time it is doubly difficult for Otto as he knew their mother. He confides in them that their mother was a good witch who fought against evil in the world. Elliot Fitzpatrick not only accurately portrays Otto’s conflicted conscious in his body language, but has a rich baritone singing voice, “The magic is there”.   Nevertheless, protection is there, for as the children sleep their Mother appears in a dream to reassure that within them is the strength they need: goodness and love. Devon Black, as Mother, puts across the nurturing softness that is the essence of the maternal instinct, always there.

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Elliot Fitzpatrick also doubles to reappear as chief henchman to the baddies, Kabeljau, a deliciously dipterous picture of hunched veniality in a black winged costume with large compound eyes, like Ben Jonson’s Mosca on steroids. Baddies always wear black and he heads up a truly frightening dark pack of assorted avian and wolf-like monsters who scamper menacingly around the theatre. These are the forces of the arch-baddie, Circe the Witch. She is a sardonic, sassy and sensuous sorceress with a great line in zapping and zinging with her taser, a zany zigzag of a wand that she uses to cow her captive children to her wishes. More darkly, the wand has the power to transform by sucking the goodness from its victims. Georgina White tackles the role of Circe with some relish, but without losing the character’s mystery, and intriguingly adding a sense of vulnerability to round out Circe’s character.

Fortunately Hansel and Gretel acquire a number of magic items on their journey which get them out of a few scrapes, a crystal, a set of pan-pipes, and a broken mirror which tells the truth if questioned in rhyme à la Snow White. The Voice of the Magic Mirror finds a fitting celebrity cameo role for Jane Horrocks, appropriately of Little Voice fame.

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All these actors are experienced performers, but they form less than a quarter of the full cast of Hansel and Gretel, which is complemented by twenty-one young actors from the Rose Youth Theatre, working on an equal basis. Indeed, the eponymous roles of the two orphans are the largest and principal roles, are taken on with equanimity by Oliver Smith and Sylvie Varcoe, who work together in well balanced harmony in two fluently confident performances. Gretel is a brave and spirited young lady with the gall to outmanoeuvre Circe by subterfuge and flattery. Sylvie’s portrait of Gretel is very assured and has the true force of her character. Hansel has both courage and insight, but with a quick wit. Oliver’s Hansel is very securely played with chirpy and audacious bravura. Both young actors understand their characters with veracity and accuracy.

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The Rose Youth Theatre is superb both as a team and as individuals. They work well in a self-controlled ensemble. It is hard to spotlight individuals but three exemplars will illustrate their achievements. Frankie Oldham’s Adelbert, one of Circe’s captives, a boy who was led to believe he was going to university, makes a marked emotional journey and pulls a lot of characterisation from his smallish part. Tom Stephens is outstanding in the comic cameo of Pinocchio, from Grub’s lost fairy tales. Physically the stiff movements of the carved puppet are all there, and his broad Italian accent, with a hint of caricature, made me wonder if he might be Italian. Nancy Whitworth really sparkles as Peppi, the Peregrine Falcon, with a lightness of touch and a vivacity that creates an easily likeable personality for her character.

The style of the production is also enhanced by the Rose Youth Theatre with an ubiquitous trio who play three Fairy narrators, Nyx (Jack Hadman), Freya (Anna Pryce) and Skrat (Francis Redfern). They open up the sense of place and action with poetic descriptions; and they motor the plot in the way that a Greek chorus might, but with a more serene approach.

The poetic style of the piece is further enhanced by the music-box filigree sounds of composer Eammon O’Dwyer whose music and lyrics once again illuminate the Rose’s Christmas show. Equally the seasonal return of puppetry director Yvonne Stone brings an innovative flare to animate the design using shadow and carnival puppets. The Robber Wolf is terrifyingly impressive in its realism.

Director Rosie Jones crafts a storytelling tour de force that has a sculptured delicacy in spite of its black themes. Its themes of redemption and restitution through goodness and love chime well with the Christmas story.

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And of course, there is the delicious gingerbread house … enough to make anyone live happily ever after, for “happily ever after”, ends all good fairy tales, and this one is no exception.

Mark Aspen
December 2018

Photography by Mark Douet

3 Comments
  1. celiabard permalink

    I saw this production yesterday, and found it lived up to excellent review as expressed here. Stage design is highly imaginative and provides marvellous backcloth to a talented young group of actors supported wonderfully by more mature performers.

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