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Theatre review: Hansel and Gretel/Liverpool Everyman

Liz Lacey discovers when it's Grimm up north it's very very dark

Published on March 22nd 2010.


Theatre review: Hansel and Gretel/Liverpool Everyman

THE TRADITIONAL fairytale of Hansel and Gretel has everything a modern child could wish for in a story. Abandonment, parental betrayal, starvation, witchcraft and cannibalism are just the more obvious themes.

I chatted to a benchful of little boys from St Vincent De Paul school, all wriggling away like a bag of mice. They were unanimous in their approval, loving the puppets and the clowning, enjoying the dark elements, and even liking the music. One of them said 'It’s not even like music I know, but it doesn’t do your head in'

Cornish theatre company Kneehigh’s production also offers adorable pink-eared rabbits discussing philosophy, a couple of devoted hens called Diana and Maureen, an emotionally volatile Bolivian condor given to spouting Shakespeare, and a witch who has popped straight out of Roald Dahl, complete with sagging comedy breasts and bald head.

I always found the characters of Hansel and Gretel annoyingly dense and unnaturally trusting. They were made more sympathetic in this inventive version. Hansel (Craig Johnson) is a big amiable clumsy lad, several inches taller than his father. Gretel (Joanna Holden) is a tiny cross between Dobby The House Elf and Wee Jimmy Crankie. She has a remarkable facility for mechanical invention which ultimately saves them from the clutches of the Witch.

“Kneehigh” are about to celebrate their 30th anniversary. They are a uniquely wild bunch, telling stories with verve, bravura, bagpipes and puppets. Their celebrated ability to conjure rough magic from garden tools and unusual poetry is demonstrated to the full here. Music , light and sound are employed to bring about sensory spectacle with maximum imagination.

It is rare to experience an auditorium full of children and not hear a sound, but the tenser moments of Hansel and Gretel commanded their absolute attention. In the interval I chatted to a benchful of little boys from St Vincent De Paul school, all wriggling away like a bag of mice. They were unanimous in their approval, loving the puppets and the clowning, enjoying the dark elements, and even liking the music. One of them said “It’s not even like music I know, but it doesn’t do your head in.”

A mouse was flattened in the first half. Everyone was thrilled, particularly when the starving Woodcutter family ate it.

Food, and the lack of it, is a major theme. The pathetic attempts of the family to ward off starvation, and the hallucinatory ravings of the mother, reduced to eating worms, make more sense of the rather callous decision to abandon the children in the forest.

The family keep up their spirits with songs and hugging, but eventually, they are overcome. Hansel and Gretel are led to the Witch's house by Hamlet, the Bolivian Condor, who is her familiar.

At first, she is a deceptively motherly figure in a bouffant blonde wig and dark glasses, resembling Bette Davis in her last years, showering and stuffing the children with goodies and treats.

Vivid mime and theatrical trickery conjure up the feast, with elaborate cookery and magic employed to bemuse the children, like an episode of Come Dine With Me directed by Lewis Carroll.

Sated, they sleep, and, as they slumber, the set fills with abandoned teddy bears, lost children’s shoes, and an ominous pile of bones. This was genuinely chilling; unsettlingly evoking grim reports of missing children, the real stuff of adult nightmares.

Creepiness and tension were defused when the Witch was revealed in her true shape, a bald crone in a satin slip, exulting in her evil and slinging her grotesque breasts around to comic effect. The schoolboys near me practically exploded with glee.

After this, retribution came swiftly, and some mechanical wizardry from Gretel saw the Witch briskly into her own cauldron. She made a hearty meal of expiring, with several false endings and a terrifically literal skeleton at the feast.

Your children will love this, being tough and unsentimental little creatures, but I warn you, it may well give you nightmares

8/10

*Until Saturday April 3: Hansel and Gretel, Everyman Theatre, Hope St, L1 9BH. Tel: 0151 708 4776. Tickets £16.50/Children £8.25

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