Kneehigh’s Hansel and Gretel stretches the story as far as possible, and then lets it go ‘ping’ in the most satisfying way possible. The (slightly too long) first half sets up Hansel (Chris Price) and Gretel (Joanna Holden) as loving, teasing twins from a happy but poor family. No evil stepmother here, but a family driven to abandoning their beloved children after poverty and famine drive them to desperation. Edith Tanku plays the loving mother (although her accent wavers rather alarmingly from time to time) with humour and tenderness, and plays well off Carl Grose’s jolly father. The emotional wrench when Hansel and Gretel decide to leave of their own accord is all the greater for it being voluntary: two mouths are easier to feed than four.
The fear of the forest is alleviated by Gretel’s resourcefulness and knack with technology: she rigs mousetraps, wood choppers and, eventually, an ingenious series of ropes, pulleys and switches that boot the camp-but-terrifying witch into the flames. The witch, played with huge glee by a mincing Carl Grose, is larger-than-life and salivates over the children. Although the witch herself is not as scary as she could be, the set comes into its own here: the witch’s collection of tiny shows and teddies are unpleasantly reminiscent of the Holocaust and add a deeper dimension to the horror – which is only just undercut by the witch’s wry aside to the audience at the end of her song, “Thanks for applauding cannibalism”.
Stu Barker and Ian Ross’s charming score complements the whimsical script (Carl Grose), and the interaction between actors and musicians is nicely done under Mike Shepherd’s deft direction. Michael Vale’s set is a giant playground for Gretel’s inventions, full of gardening tools, ropes and pulleys – it invites her quick brain to play and experiment, a delightful thing in a children’s show.
Kneehigh has ended their tour of Hansel and Gretel, but you can catch The Red Shoes on tour shortly.