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Hansel and Gretel

by on 18 June 2019

If You Go Down in the Woods

Hansel and Gretel

by Engelbert Humperdinck, libretto by Adelheid Wette, based on the Grimm brothers’ story

Regent’s Park Theatre and English National Opera, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 22nd June

Review by Suzanne Frost

I have never been to the amphitheatre in Regent’s Park before, because the reality of a Great British Summer always means that, in choosing a date and buying a ticket, you also acquire the risk of having a right miserable wet time. For ENO’s opening night of Hansel and Gretel the weather gods were on our side (the only dry day all week!) and how lovely the grounds look, with fairy lights in the trees and the lawn dotted with picnic baskets and happy people carrying wine coolers. My continental bones still need a fleece jacket and a blanket to wrap up in but there’s no denying that when it goes right, a Great British picnic really is charming.

Hansel And Gretel

With the trees whispering and birdsong mingling with the human voices, those pastoral brass notes of the overture develop a very special magic. Engelbert Humperdinck’s children’s opera is sweet in its simplicity yet rich in melodies and orchestration; very reminiscent of his mentor and teacher Richard Wagner, but much more optimistic and in this case, deliberately more modest with a close vicinity to German folk music. Indeed, so many of the songs are nursery rhymes any German kid knows to sing in kindergarten and so the opera taps right into memory, transporting you back to simpler times. Usually Hansel and Gretel is a Christmas favourite, its rich brass and wind section giving it a festive splendour. But in Derek J Clark’s stripped down re-orchestration for a scaled down ensemble, conducted by Ben Glassberg, it has a pastoral charm that works just as well when your stage is in the forest and the surrounding bushes act as wings and the odd pigeon comes flying through the scenery.

Hansel And Gretel

To the sounds of the overture, director Timothy Sheader populates the stage with a chorus of sinister looking witches in dirty rags carrying broomsticks and sulkily sucking on lollipops. With their empty stare and exaggerated rings under their eyes they resemble a zombie army straight out of The Walking Dead and give a nice chilly creepiness to the fairy tale without ever doing anything truly unsettling.

Hansel And GretelWe meet Hansel and Gretel in their squalid little house, short on food but rich in cheer and energy, playing games using their imagination. Grown-ups playing child characters often ends up icky but I found Rachel Kelly and Susanna Hurrell convincing enough without piling on the sugar. While not confined to any distinctive time period, there are fun contemporary touches such as Rosie Aldridge’s robust mother calling on God to help with a lottery scratch-ticket or getting positively turned on by the can of Heinz beans her brush maker husband brings home to feast on, while swigging from a can of beer (and relieving himself in the bushes of Regent’s Park!) A special mention to Duncan Rock’s beautifully clear articulation and I am so pleased that while in the past I have often struggled with ENO’s insistence on English libretti, the translation for Hansel and Gretel by David Pountey is perfect, with natural, easy rhythm that retains the simplistic charm and dreamy poetry of the original.

There are beautiful directorial ideas, from the forest built out of upside-down broomsticks, lit up with twinkly fairy lights, to the dream pantomime that concludes Act II and sees a crew of fourteen angel airline hosts descending in a wonderfully imaginative scene with a distinct Matthew Bourne aesthetic to it.

Hansel And Gretel

The gingerbread house that greets us on return from the interval is a colourful construction of blinking flickering lights with the irresistible appeal of an amusement arcade to a gambling addict. Only Alasdair Elliott’s witch is a bit of a let-down, his panto dame attire just isn’t as menacing compared to the truly spooky chorus of zombie witches – but then he does shave his legs using whipped cream and reveals a bald head under his wig, in a nice nod to Roald Dahl’s The Witches.

Hansel And Gretel

The spirited kids from Pimlico Children’s Choir get to finish the show with a Mathilda-like power to the little people number, but overall this production feels more for grownups than children – it’s got humour and heart and a few knowing winks and pop culture references that make it quite sophisticated in its sweetness.

Suzanne Frost
September 2018

Photography by Johan Persson

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