ChildrensFamilyFestive 15/16North East & YorkshireReview

Hansel & Gretel – Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

Writer: Mike Kenny

Director: Henry Bell

Designer: Lucy Weller

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Mike Kenny is an expert at approaching children’s stories from an unusual angle, telling them from an oblique viewpoint, often that of invented characters who play a rôle in the traditional story. In this respect his version of Hansel &Gretel is less original than many of his other treatments: a family, not starving, consisting of Mother, Father and children Hansel and Gretel tells the story of the same family, but on the brink of starvation.

Both Kenny and director Henry Bell emphasise that a major theme of the play is the nature of story-telling and cleverly the characters and narration change subtly with each narrator. Hansel constantly emphasises that he is superior to Gretel because he is male, older – and he’s telling the story. When she completes the narration, things are decidedly different. As for Mother and Father, they each have a big scene foregrounding their second character – Wicked Witch and Giant Mouse – during their spell in charge of the story.

This is very much a pared down Hansel and Gretel. The family sits down to a meal at the beginning and the table and brightly coloured benches serve as props during the play. Lucy Weller’s designs add a raised platform for a bedroom and a door that leads to an exciting and/or empty cupboard; a trapdoor serves for the oven in a none too thrilling attack on the Witch; costumes are sort of Alpine/Black Forest with improvised additions; Oli Steadman’s songs are strictly a cappella.

The “less is more” philosophy works particularly well in getting audience participation to supply all the animals and birds who have rôles in the traditional story: scaring or reassuring the children or pecking up the bits of bread they were using as markers. Only a Giant Mouse actually appears, played by Jamie Chapman as an ultra-confused version of Alan Bennett.

Peter Basham and Elinor Lawless are very well matched as Hansel and Gretel, both bossy in their own ways, she particularly vividly characterised as a feistily independent feminist, both conveying their dependence on each other beneath the squabbling. Jamie Chapman is a kindly soul, both as long-suffering Father and as the mouse constantly seeking to undo the spell that multiplied his size. Eithne Browne’s Witch is rather on one note and in some ways, she is more frightening as Mother. Kenny’s script is strong on emphasising the imminence of starvation and, stamping round in a constant fury at the world, Browne really seems ready to abandon her children in the forest.

Though this is not one of his most memorable children’s plays, Kenny, as always, has a sure touch with dialogue and knows the age-group he is aiming at. In this case, lower primaryschool, judging by the school parties filling the theatre and by the patterns of repetition in the text. Henry Bell directs a lively production, if a little short of magic, but with plenty of energy.

Runs until 27 December 2015 | Image: Tony Bartholomew

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