Writer: Gbolahan Obisesan
Choreographer: Vicki Igbokwe
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
This Christmas seems to be a popular time to update and rework the Brothers Grimm. A fashion-forward take on Rumpelstiltskinopening at the Southbank earlier this week is now joined by Vicki Igbokwe’s African dance update of Hansel and Gretel at The Place in which the entire story is not just relocated but stretched beyond the point of recognition into a colourful but headache-inducing hour-long show.
Needing to leave their home for unspecified reasons, Hansel and his sister Gretel are escorted across the sea by the friendly Wasi who becomes their pseudo-mother and fellow traveller Joy, taking them to London where they are left in safety. Desperate to return to Wasi, they retrace their steps only for her to take them to another safehouse which they leave to find her again. Less certain of their direction, this time they end up alone in the woods.
Igbokwe’s jettisons much of the original story to leave a fairly weak narrative about finding home and building self-reliance. Somehow without cruel parents, sinister witches and child cannibalism this Hansel and Gretellacks any real jeopardy, and, with patchy pre-recorded narration, the amended story is increasingly difficult to follow. Instead, there is a children’s television feel to Gbolahan Obisesan’s slightly patronising script full of big messages about good and bad strangers (“that persons was not a nice person”) and instructions to “be brave.”
The problem is, very little actually happens; there are lots of journeys on boats, cars and buses as well as on foot which the four-strong cast perform as extended dance sequences, but this is mixed with plenty of games as Hansel and Gretel play Hide and Seek or Grandmother’s Footsteps in extended sequences that allow the company to include some shameless audience interaction. It’s all performed well, merging tribal moves, dance music and the occasional hint of Salsa in big free movements that are full of energy, but hardly any of it really tells the story.
Devoted Londoners may also be amusingly enraged by a sequence in which Joy clearly inhabits the form of a cheeky cab driver leading the other characters in a walk from Green Park to the Imperial War Museum via Drury Lane and the Imax at Waterloo, rather than directly through St James’s Park and over Westminster Bridge. And somehow the children take a train to Dover from Platform 7 at King’s Cross when they really ought to be at St Pancras – these are the things that may tax a bemused adult in a production otherwise aimed at quite young children.
There are aspects of Hansel and Gretel that work well and alongside Igbokwe’s spirited choreography Mayowa Ogunnaike and Marc Stevenson’s characterisation in the title roles is impressive, capturing the positivity, love of adventure and enjoyment of play with a childlike joy. They smile and bounce their way through every scenario despite some unanswered questions about their parentless state and Wasi’s abandonment of them.
Rudzani Moleya as Joy and Esme Benjamin convey plenty of adult authority using their own solo sections to emphasise their essential good-heartedness in caring for two runaway orphans, and there are some interesting stage techniques including the use of a yellow umbrella as the evil stranger which in the performers’ hands takes on a curious personality of its own, even shuddering with laughter at times.
There is too little action and too many unanswered questions in Hansel and Gretel which detracts from the dancer performances and Igbokwe’s choreography. The idea to relocate to Africa is, in principle, a good one but too little of the original story remains for it be a wholly satisfying theatrical experience or to unveil the dark moral centre at the heart of the Brothers Grimm original.
Reviewed on 18 December 2019 | Image: Foteini Christofilopoulou