Writer/Director: Elvi Piper
Designer: Antony Jones
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Wrongsemble is a highly enterprising young company based in Leeds, most recently seen this summer at Shakespeare’s Rose in York re-creating Shakespeare’s youth in Billy Shakes: Wonderboy! Now the company returns to Leeds Library for an extended Christmas run of Hansel and Gretel. Dates and times are varied and somewhat irregular, but the company clocks up over 40 performances over four weeks, several of them relaxed or described in BSL or audio.
Aimed at “adventurers aged 4-10 and their grown-ups”, Hansel and Gretel is a real boon to the Library’s festivities even if the narrative can be a touch confusing to the younger element. The moral message is not overdone and very welcome, but one mother could be heard explaining to her child, not by any means the youngest there, on the way out, “It shows you that a witch isn’t always bad.”
The basic story of Hansel and Gretel is well known and the three actors are deployed, conventionally enough, as the two siblings and the witch. Elvi Piper’s task is to give the familiar tale a new framework which she does neatly by having three young people trapped in the Library as a snowstorm breaks. They end up enacting a story from a book on the library shelves. The book-obsessed customer (Stephanie Rutherford) becomes Gretel, the easily frightened library employee (Lawrence Hodgson-Mullings) becomes Hansel and the bossy librarian (Miriam Swainsbury) tells the story until her part comes up.
The first half of a one-hour performance presents the story more or less as we know it, with enough energy and imagination to send the younger children into a state of high excitement. Piper adds new words to many familiar songs, The Teddy Bear’s Picnic (“If you go down to the woods today…”) a sort of recurrent theme song, and the actors sing well and are particularly impressive on a range of instruments: early on it’s mostly ukuleles, by the end of the performance they’ve added keyboards, violin, accordion, clarinet and – most effectively – trombone.
The interplay between Hodgson-Mullings and Rutherford is delightful and the movement of all three actors always energetic, occasionally graceful and frequently comical. Their expressive and likeable performances, in Piper’s imaginative production, carry the play to the end. However, the two variants on the story are less involving, though not without their fun moments, notably the irresistibly brattish modern Hansel and Gretel in the second version. This is the one where the witch is nice! Finally there is a version where they all get the chance to be what they want to be. The route by which a stage-struck, but also stage-frightened, witch finishes as a star is somewhat tortuous, but it’s a jolly finale.
A totally engaging show, Hansel and Gretel makes good use of a sizeable room in the Library, with a simple, but attractive, set and action that goes right to the feet of the small children sitting on the floor at the front.
Runs until January 5, 2020 | Image: contributed