Writer and Director: Esther Simpson
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
The Twisted Tale of Hansel and Gretel is a bold choice for Birmingham Hippodrome’s first in-house production. The theatre has had a long-standing relationship with co-producers Open Theatre Company – one of the region’s leading promoters of Learning Disabled Arts – and this production boasts a cast and crew drawn from BecauseWeCanCanCan, a learning-disabled company based in the Midlands. But this isn’t intended as some sort of drama-based therapy for its participants: this is a full-blown professional production with assistance and artistic direction from Metro-Boulot-Dodo touring the region over the next few months with the intention of touring nationally next year. And that’s not all: there are plans for more Twisted Tales over the next few years. But these plans could come to nothing if there isn’t an audience; if the partners can’t pull it off.
The lights dim and the story-teller, an engaging young man starts to read the story of Hansel and Gretel. He is assisted by the Mockingbird, who provides music and sound effects on a range of instruments. But as the story progresses, the characters assert themselves – Gretel most definitely does not cry bitter tears at every setback, for example – while new characters shoehorn themselves in – who knew the witch lived with a chef, or that a duck would turn out to be a key character? The storyteller eventually goes with the flow, and the story unfolds.
The set at first appears unfinished, with boxes strewn around. But these are moved by the cast, piled with precision in tightly choreographed movements to form the woodcutter’s house and, later, the witch’s gingerbread cottage. However, the running joke as the blocks are arranged and rearranged maybe outstays its welcome a touch and impacts on the pace. However, the other comedic touches and visual jokes work well with spot-on comic timing from all the cast members and the action generally zings along.
Before tonight’s performance, director, Esther Simpson, confirmed that the cast and crew were part of the whole creative process: as a result, it seems that the demands of each character match the actor and their skills well. At the centre is the increasingly flustered storyteller (Nicky Priest). His descent into confusion is portrayed well. Priest is poised – dealing with a minor fluff on press night very well – as he drives the narrative. Providing much of the overt comedy is the Mockingbird, played by multi-instrumentalist, Charles Craggs. Craggs’ timing is impeccable as he accompanies the action with apposite and often amusing sounds, skilfully playing a number of instruments. The woodcutter/Chef and Stepmother/witch (Luke Greenwood and Jake Jarvis respectively) provide much slapstick hilarity, while Kimisha Lewis’ Gretel displays a decent singing voice. Rishard Beckett’s Hansel is a visual feast while Vicki Taylor’s duck provides plenty of tongue-in-cheek visual humour.
Overall, this is an assured and entertaining production with much to commend it to paying audiences and that deserves to do well.
Runs until 8 April 2018 and on tour | Image: Kate Green