Hansel And Gretel Lyric Hammersmith, London W6/
Hansel And Gretel Bolton Octagon
December, 1999

It is always instructive to see two substantially differing treatments of the same story close together and also, in this case, to see the audience responses thereto. Polly Irvin and her company aim to follow the recent Hammersmith Christmas form of blending traditional stories with a modern approach, whilst Stuart Paterson's version at Bolton shows both more deliberation in fashioning itself as a family show and much more depth in its thematic concerns.

Indeed, the audiences themselves are appreciably different. At Hammersmith, as I remarked last year on seeing its production of Cinderella, the children are often outnumbered by the adults who have come along to cut unashamedly loose for an evening of laughter, cheers and jeers. However, Irvin's production lacks the storytelling commitment of that earlier show by the admirable Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, and substitutes gimmickry for the wonder of the event. Thus, Hansel and Gretel (Tom Fisher and Carla Henry) are first seen in a Royle Family-esque couch potato prologue, and are then apparently sucked into a video game where they find themselves in the Grimms' story. It might have been all right for this device to be dropped without any final conclusion (after all, it didn't bother Shakespeare with The Taming Of The Shrew), but the second-level story of the family in the forest is likewise unresolved, with the wicked stepmother who abandons the poor children being simply forgotten about once the witch arrives on the scene. Nor do the couple of brief appearances of, er, an unnamed Grimm Brother amount to anything. A raft of design, imagistic and musical devices work adequately though unexceptionally, but this feels like a mere representation of imaginative entertainment rather than the real thing.

There were many more children in the audience at Bolton, but they made scarcely more noise than their London counterparts. This, however, was due not to boredom (bored youngsters, after all, are not quiet!), but to their being engrossed in the more complex and demanding story of Paterson's version and Mark Babych's production. Here, the wicked witch has stolen the Faerie King's staff of magic, captured his son and turned the forest into a place of evil. She has also enslaved a circus troupe, who reluctantly lure Hansel and Gretel into the witch's clutches in order to win freedom (of a sort) for one of their number. When Gretel (Sarah Hadland ) is later offered the same deal, she is faced with an agonising moral dilemma: is she to manifest her love for her brother by ensnaring another innocent to take his place, and thus corrupting herself for his sake, or by remaining true to her principles and facing death together with him? The tale thus becomes the toughest rite of passage of all: facing up to new and onerous responsibilities without sacrificing one's own identity.

The capers of the circus troupe and the grotesquerie of the witch provide more conventional jollies alongside the profundity. Tracy Wiles as the wicked La Stregamama (for Mediterranean, Germanic and Celtic myths all blend here) has a wonderful moment of reversal when Gretel fails to push her into the oven: "You'll never get me with that old trick!" she crows. In the end, the witch is bested only by a show of solidarity among not only all of her captives but also the audience, cleverly underlining once more a sense of moral community. What meets the eye in Bolton is engaging enough, but the show contains so much more as well.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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