In a land far, far away (well, Europe), NIE is waiting to tell you a story, using as many inventive and genuinely clever devices and verbal or theatrical tricks as they can cram into just over an hour.
NIE’s Hansel and Gretel is, without a doubt, the most knowing, wry and laugh-out-loud funny tale about cannibalism and child abuse that you will see this Christmas. I had Kneehigh’s Christmas offering from last year in my head before the show began, but this is entirely different beast – and so charming that it eclipses all memory of Kneehigh’s dark and delightful story. The production asks a lot of its performers, who all work hard manipulating puppets, playing multiple instruments and, of course, performing and telling the well-known story, but they all deliver on all fronts.
This production pushes the boundaries of meta-theatre, gently, constantly breaking the fourth wall and nudging the audience into giggles. This is handled deftly, never crossing the line into pantomimic or cringe-worthy, and never making the audience feel uncomfortable. There is a nice amount of audience participation with which the younger members of the audience enthusiastically joined in, and a good number of jokes for the adults, with references to Asda and Big Society eliciting eye rolls and claps.
NIE doesn’t shy away from the darker side of the tale, with a whole, bleak song about famine and hunger, but somehow, the upbeat tunes and rather cuddly witch stop it ever becoming particularly scary. Even when Hansel is caged and Gretel perilously close to being roasted, the plump (sorry, big-boned!) witch is rather approachable and convivial, singing a perfectly reasonable-sounding song about how much she likes children, enumerating all the bits she likes to eat. At least, in these austere times, she doesn’t waste any – even expressing a fondness for frying up the kneecaps, which must be least appetising portion of any creature…
The set (by Stefanie Mueller) is the perfect embodiment of less is more; a few sparse, snow-covered trees become an entire forest, and a single rug becomes a cosy home. The multi-lingual cast (Carly Davis, Mia Hawk, Unai Lopez de Armentia, Rew Lowe and Stefanie Mueller) are enchantingly wide-eyed with wonder at all the imagined scenes before them and make it easy to get totally caught up in this story. Alex Byrne has created a deeply funny fairy tale, tinged with the pathos of the weak-willed father and the malevolence of the shrieking Norwegian step-mother. The sparse space of The Junction is filled with Christmas spirit as NIE tells us a familiar tale in new and brilliant ways.
Hansel and Gretel is playing at The Junction until 3 January. For more information and tickets, see The Junction website.