Fairytales are everywhere at the moment – not that they’ve been away – but we’ve become rather obsessed of late. From Neil Gaiman’s retelling of Sleeping Beauty (The Sleeper And The Spindle) to Frank Cottrell Boyce’s recent Red Riding Hood-inspired episode of Dr Who and even (if you must) Russell Brand’s reboot of The Pied Piper Of Hamelin, we’re all suckers for a stirring story darkly told.
With this in mind, Horse + Bamboo’s take on the classic Brothers Grimm tale is spot on. Writer and director Alison Duddle says she was drawn to Hansel And Gretel because “it contains huge themes people of all ages understand – being hungry, lost and afraid, being greedy, feeling tempted, giving in”.
And while this version stays true to the spirit of the original, Duddle has taken some liberties which give the story a modern slant. The one dimensional figure of the evil stepmother has gone, replaced by war – the cause of the children’s separation from their father (at the time the show was written the news was full of images of parent-less children in Syria and Gaza). And, instead of breadcrumbs, we get a trail of Werther’s Originals (surely the most sinister sweet of all).
But it’s the way this story is told that’s truly enchanting. Horse + Bamboo, based in Waterfoot, East Lancashire, is a visual theatre company known primarily for its work with puppets and masks, and the company uses both to great effect here. Three puppets of differing size are used to portray Hansel, who’s shown as an impetuous, greedy toddler; while another three are used for Gretel, the sensible older sister.
In the first, practically wordless half of the performance we meet Hansel, Gretel and their father in their sparse home. There’s love aplenty but the cupboards are bare and it’s not long before the children find themselves lost in the eerily beautiful forest, searching for food and the way home.
This part of the performance is subdued and restrained for good reason…because, when the kids finally make it to the witch’s house, it’s sensory overload! A mash-up of Millie’s My Boy Lollipop blares from the speakers as the audience is force-fed acid-bright colours and day-glo treats – the visual equivalent of scoffing a tub of Quality Street and then washing it all down with a pint of Tizer.
The witch herself is brilliantly brought to life by Jonny Quick (who also designed and built the set). The only speaking part, she has more than a touch of the pantomime dame about her – think Roy Barraclough and Les Dawson’s Cissie and Ada characters – and sings a deliciously horrible rhyme by way of introduction. She’s more camp than cruel though and *Spoiler Alert* the audience at the preview show cheered when she was finally shoved in the oven.
Although the witch is undoubtedly a lot of fun, and Hansel And Gretel (deftly puppeteered by Aya Nakamura and Mark Whitaker) are sympathetic heroes, the real star of the show is the ingenious set. It serves as Hansel and Gretel’s home, the forest and the witch’s house – transforming so swiftly that a little girl in the audience exclaimed “this just gets weirder and weirder” and then, a little later, “it’s magic!”.
In short, Hansel And Gretel is everything your commercial panto is not. There are no C-list celebs, double entendres and over-priced merchandise at the interval. There are puppets, masks, original music, animation and film instead (plus a Larry Grayson reference that only mums and dads of a certain age will get).
It’s a great antidote to the usual festive fayre – and it proves that a fairytale’s not just for Christmas (or the kids).
By Jo Dearden
Where: The Met, Bury
When: until December 24, 2014
For additional Northern tour dates in 2015 please see http://www.horseandbamboo.org/hansel-gretel-itinerary/