Hansel and Gretel, National Theatre | Theatre reviews, news & interviews
Hansel and Gretel, National Theatre
Not the grimmest Grimm, Katie Mitchell's children's show is full of fun but lacks magic
’Tis the season to be jolly. ’Tis also the season to dust off the stories of the Grimms and Perrault and present them as drama, sometimes transmogrified into panto. There are sometimes attempts to go back to source and eschew the tawdry delights of transvestite dames, sparkly leotards and lame rhyming couplets. The source, of course, is often really quite frightening.
At the National Theatre, Katie Mitchell directs a sort of half-way house by Lucy Kirkwood “developed at the NT studio”. In this Hansel and Gretel There is no cartoonish dame with a suffocating bosom, but – the cast being small - Marta, the wicked stepmother, is played by a man, Amit Shah. He’s a rather busy man, also impersonating Wilhelm Grimm and, more surprisingly, Rostislav, the Oven. Everyone speaks in rhyming couplets, but not the irritating kind in which the end of the next line presents itself before it’s uttered. “Bravado” is rhymed with “dozy avocado” and “traitors” with “mashed potaters”. The cast go in for a bit of call-and-response, but “behind you” doesn’t feature. Instead, “Don’t sit on the confabulator” is the line we are asked to yell. That must be the longest word ever hurled across a Christmas stage.
The company obviously had a lot of fun putting this show together
The confabulator – a rhomboid box with knobs on – swallows the two top-hatted, moustachioed Brothers Grimm who are intent on capturing and publishing a story. They experience their tale from the inside, the more so, of course, as they act several parts. Justin Salinger is the father of the two lost children, Hansel and Gretel, as well as Jacob Grimm and Stuart the Bat. Stuart, the Witch’s familiar, turns out to be a camp, enchanted ballet dancer.
All of which might suggest that this is not the grimmest Grimm. Kate Duchene, a regular among Mitchell’s actors, plays the Witch (pictured below right), but also manipulates (rather well) the cat puppet, Jennifer. Jennifer! The company obviously had a lot of fun putting this show together and it is fun to watch, but it never grabs the attention with either fright or magic as, for instance, Mitchell’s production of Beauty and the Beast did here a couple of years ago. The primary school audience responded well but they were most visibly excited when stage “snow” fell on their heads.
Dylan Kennedy makes a gangling Hansel and Ruby Bentall a doll-like Gretel, rather more astute than her brother and claiming that, among her domestic talents, she’s “quite good with an axe”. Duchene’s Witch is never a serious threat, having poor eyesight (which leads to numerous realistic collisions with the scenery) and being easily bundled into the Russian oven. Her creepiness in “grooming” the children with her gingerbread and banoffee pie is diluted into knockabout humour.
This is Grimm with music hall overtones. The songs are fun, accompanied by a one-man-band in the stalls, John Paul Gandy, and the German philologists end with a routine of which Wilson, Keppel and Betty, famed for their comic Egyptian dance, might have been proud. The performance is swift and slick with cardboard-cut-out sets falling into place to make forest, home or witch’s cottage with the help of an exemplary stage management team. But the Grimms’ toughness has got lost in the benign seasonal mix.
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