Revew: Hansel & Gretel, South Street Arts Centre

Tucked away inside the unassuming red-brick building that is Reading’s South St. Arts Centre is the town’s best kept secret—the Festival Of The Forest is raving on from dusk to dawn and, lucky you, you’ve got a ticket. This is the setting for Anna Wheatley and Hal Chambers’ quirky reimagining of the Brothers Grimm tale of twins abandoned by abusive parents, forced to fend for themselves in the wild woodlands. Before you even enter the theatre, the low hum of drum and bass pumps through the glowing purple corridors and you’re welcomed by a chatty security guard who slips a wristband around your arm, and an enthusiastic raver offering free glitter to anyone willing to let her use their face as a canvas.

Hansel & Gretel is the first of RBL’s productions I’ve managed to make it to, and as the company has become something of a local legend, I was eager to see whether it lived up to the reputation. It certainly did not disappoint; Hansel & Gretel has as much heart and honesty as it has wit. I truly do mean it when I say it was a delight to watch.

Wheatley’s spin on the well-known story centres around communication, individuality, and coming-of-age for Hansel and Gretel. Gretel (Oriana Charles) is a budding Kate Tempest, with a gift for spoken word poetry and a wide-eyed lust for life that sometimes gives way to a fiery temper. Her brother Hansel (Oscar Porter) is ‘a man like no other’; he is creative and in touch with nature, an avid collector of rocks, and a talented baker. Hansel also communicates non-verbally through a mixture of dance and mime, which means that Gretel often takes on the role of Hansel’s mouthpiece in situations where others cannot understand him. They are in a sense opposites of one another, yet they share a powerful bond. 

However, the nuances of this relationship are maturely and lovingly handled by Wheatley and Chambers; at the beginning of the play, Hansel and Gretel’s relationship is sweet, but co-dependent. As Gretel puts it, “We were born holding hands”; they are inseparable, which seems heartwarming at first but grows into something more stifling for both of them. This is, of course, not entirely their fault due to the callous treatment they face at the hands of the delightfully nasty Heike (Meghan Treadway) and Torsten (Daniel Creasey).

Wheatley’s script does not shy away from the ugly side of Hansel and Gretel’s unique relationship; Gretel’s tendency to be overprotective of Hansel causes her to push people away, for example, while Hansel’s frustration that Gretel wants him to come with her everywhere, even if it means heading into a rave that he feels deeply overwhelmed by, leaves Gretel unable to explore. Wheatley delicately and sensitively handles the nuances of being a teenager, finding individuality, and making your voice heard in both literal and non-literal terms. Although the show is packed with one-liners, bizarre humour (including a love song sung to a cow), and some very accurate parody of the kind of carefree nonsense that goes on at music festivals, this did not water down the show’s heart.

The other major subject of the show is language and the barriers within communication; although this is obviously demonstrated through the dynamic between the titular twins, another character who highlights this is Hexe (Creasey), the misunderstood witch living as far away from everyone else as is humanly possible. Hexe speaks entirely in verse, using language that could easily be mistaken for Shakespeare. After a long and confusing rhyme about poisonous mushrooms, Gretel argues that Hexe “needs to work on her accessibility”, yet Hansel seems to develop a mutual understanding with Hexe almost immediately.

The dynamic between Hexe and the twins is used to make a point about the assumptions we make about people based on how they communicate, but ironically, the language Hexe was using to explain it makes it difficult to articulate what exactly that point was. There is absolutely a discussion to be had in terms of how we can make particularly archaic or poetic plays still accessible to people who struggle with that sort of language, but that probably isn’t a conversation we should be having in iambic pentameter. Nonetheless, presenting the witch as an eccentric figure whose banishment is the result of communication difficulties is an interesting take on the traditional story and I do think it was entertaining and very well acted.

The real magic of this production certainly comes from the performances of the actors, of which it is hard to believe are only four. Treadway and Creasey make a fantastic double act as the scheming parents, reminiscent of Mr. and Mrs. Tweedy in Chicken Run, but both flex their array of comedy muscles in other supporting roles too; 5 minutes into the pre-show, Treadway is slamming us with a comedy poem about losing your tent, followed by Porter’s ‘poo-em’ about festival latrines. Every joke lands, every beat hits, every bar sounds as fresh and spontaneous as if Charles is just riffing off the cusp. Chamber’s direction has really brought out the best in these actors and it brings the show’s vibrance to life.

Overall, I found Hansel & Gretel to be one of the most fun nights out at the theatre I’ve had in a while; although I am a bit of a sucker for shows that let me wear glitter and end with everyone dancing, after watching Hansel communicate everything entirely through movement, it felt a little bit more meaningful than when other shows have used this as an ending tactic. If you’re around Reading any time this December, I encourage you to join RBL in the Festival of the Forest; it’s all the fun of a music festival, but it’s warm indoors and you won’t have to deal with portaloos, I promise.

Hansel & Gretel is playing at the South St. Arts Centre, Reading until December 31. For more information and tickets, see the Reading Arts website.