at Warwick Arts Centre, Friday 26th November 2010
Children love the grotesque. It is this passion which has made the tales of Hans Christian Anderson, Roald Dahl and the Brothers Grimm so successful. They tap into the part of the brain which is not usually allowed to flourish in everyday life, and bring out the subconscious desires of their readers. Kneehigh’s production of Hansel and Gretel under the direction of Mike Shepherd manages just about to grasp this, but it does sometimes feel that it could be darker without being any less enjoyable.
The original story is often dumbed down for modern audiences, omitting the initial famine or the myriad of children’s paraphernalia scattered around the cottage. Kneehigh, however, manage to include everything in all its gory detail, but at times it is slightly too clinical. There is a clear pattern to the horrors and the whole story feels a little mechanical at times. There is no doubt it is dark, but we constantly yearn for a little more of the absurd.
After a slow first half which draws to a close as the twins arrive at the cottage, the second is far superior in both humour and spectacle. Carl Grose’s script caters for adults and children alike; a pair of rabbits sing “Bright Eyes” to cheer themselves up and the witch thanks us “for applauding cannibalism”. At its climax, the stage is filled with smoke as terrifying music screams out from the band, and the dialogue seems far less redundant than during the preceding act. The performances also come into their own here, as the ensemble move away from the whimsy of family life and into the macabre atmosphere of the witch’s hovel.
The set, designed by Michael Vale with help from Rob Higgs, is one of the cleverest you will ever see. Throughout Mousetrap-style gizmos and machines are utilised to get Hansel and Gretel out of sticky situations, becoming more and more ambitious as the narrative progresses. It is a marvel in itself that nothing goes wrong throughout the two-hour period and the story ticks along like clockwork. It is unfortunate, then, that Mike Gunning’s lighting design, although in tune with the feel of the play, is not able to illuminate the set and faces of the actors so we can enjoy them fully.
The four central performances are all strong, especially in the second half. Chris Price and Joanna Holden as Hansel and Gretel are wonderfully innocent and loveable, and Edith Tankus as their mother and the bird is endearing, even if we do not engage with her enough as she takes on the role of semi-narrator in the second act. It is Carl Grose as the father and the witch, however, who steals the show, moving from awkward paternalism to mad old hag seamlessly in the interval, and whose dancing is worth the ticket price alone.
Throughout, the images are supplemented by Ian Ross and Stu Barker’s dark and discordant music and genius songs, but at points the voices of the actors are lost. A simple adjusting of levels would fix this, but after a long run it is difficult to see why they don’t. Hansel and Gretel is nevertheless Kneehigh on top form, incorporating original music, an ingenious set and larger than life performances to create a stunning recreation of a well known story. One request however: don’t hold back on the gore.