Theatre Royal Stratford East, London E15
Opened 9 December, 2008

Stratford’s Christmas shows have in recent years tried rather too hard to recognise the diversity of the theatre’s local audience by taking tales traditional to pantomime and giving them either exotic or “urban” makeovers, yet paradoxically thereby losing the all-together spirit of more typical renderings. This year writer Hope Massiah has rowed back somewhat and struck a happy medium, with little or nothing present here that would be out of place in the “updates” list of any conventional-yet-smart panto.
Hansel and Gretel here relocate to the forest with their father when city life proves too expensive; their new stepmother is not wicked so much as self-centred, resolving to lose the children in the woods so that she can live à deux with her beloved hubby; she regains a proper perspective in time for a happy ending. Marcus Powell plays this role in a style closer to modest drag than the more usual pantomime-dame territory: he wiggles and flutes, and also gets a fine down’n’dirty blues number just before the interval. The score as a whole spurns the laziness of stapling-in pop standards in favour of original songs properly integrated with the narrative and characters. Most deliciously and ridiculously, when the two children attempt to escape from the house of the wicked witch who has captured them, they are stopped by an alarm in the form of Nathan Amzi kitted out like a black leather Viking and screeching a parody of Scandinavian death metal.
Denizens of the forest include Monty Mole, hampered in his Woodland Watch duties by his species’ near-blindness, and the curiously prancing, hooting figure of Peter Howe as Yellow Bird, who confronts his own cowardice by helping the children escape Josephine Lloyd-Welcome’s agreeably cackling, grey-dreadlocked witch. Darren Hart as Hansel keeps consulting Courting For Dummies in his attempts to win the landlord’s tomboy daughter, who is later turned into a mouse in a subplot that is one of the show’s few misfires; Natalie Best also lacks a compelling shtick as Gretel. But Dawn Reid’s production has the requisite energy and dedication, and if it does not quite attain the rumbustiousness of Stratford shows several years ago, it’s well on the way back there.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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