In NIE’s wonderfully quirky Hansel and Gretel, playing at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory, the traditional tale is turned on its head. All of the expected elements are there, but NIE are gleefully anarchic and take liberties with the story in the most charming of ways. The audience are constantly brought into the story – quite literally, in the case of the row who are asked to be helpful ducks – and the fourth wall is cheerfully abandoned.
The Tobacco Factory’s small theatre space is in the round, so the cast have to work hard to include everyone, but Alex Byrne’s direction makes sure that the whole audience are drawn into the story. The show has been stretched out to include an interval since its run in Cambridge last year, and I’m not sure it’s an improvement. There are moments where the cast lingers for no real narrative reason and times when it feels over long.
It’s a musical show, with all songs and accompaniment provided by the multi-talented cast. Wicked Stepmother (Mia Hawk) plays a mean trombone, and the witch (Carly Davis) spends most of the first half narrating, making witty asides and playing the ukulele. It’s charming stuff, but without much edge. The darkness evident in many shows is missing here, and we do feel its absence. The stepmother is very wicked and her shrieks are piercing, but there is no real sense of danger. We never really believe that Hansel and Gretel (Unai Lopez de Armentia and Stefanie Mueller) won’t find their way home. The witch is well played, but she’s too much fun; she is cuddly and giggly, and even her song about how much she likes to eat children is too cheery to be truly terrifying.
Hansel and Gretel themselves not only act but also manoeuvre mini puppet-versions of themselves, allowing them to climb trees, cover vast distances on the back of ducks, and, of course, fit inside the tiny gingerbread house. The cast of five all work hard, investing utterly in the tale and making us invest, too, despite its occasional problems. With minimal props and an ingenious use of the Tobacco Factory’s inconvenient pillars, they bring the story to life. It’s funny, with a gentle but slightly subversive humour, it’s clever and it’s fun. Lucky children of Bristol – and the grown-ups haven’t got a bad deal either…
Hansel and Gretel is at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol until 13 January. For information and tickets visit www.tobaccofactorytheatre.com.