Review – Hansel and Gretel – Kneehigh Theatre at Queen Elizabeth Hall

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Kneehigh Theatre is responsible for one of the best shows I’ve seen since I moved to London, Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, and while the next show I saw them do (Don John) seemed very unfinished and unsatisfying, I don’t expect good companies (or playwrights) to always bat 1000. When you’ve hit as high as Brief Encounter, I’m going to give you a lot of slack. And I’m going to keep coming back, for a very long time, hoping that you’ll hit that moment of pure genius again, or that at least you’ll give me theater that I enjoy and remember. With this in mind, I cracked open my suffering bank account and coughed up 25 quid (somewhat sulkily as I consider panto-type entertainment more appropriately priced at 15 a pop) for tickets to their new(ish) production, Hansel and Gretel.

To be honest, I was actually _not_ going to go because it was over my price point, but one of my best friends wanted to go as a Christmas thing for us to do together, so I dug deeper than usual and hoped it would be great. And then, you know, if push came to shove I could console myself with seeing it early enough that I could get a good review in, right? I did get a little more excited when a letter came the week before the show announcing that after a trial run, they’d determined this show was really probably too scary for under-eights (and offering refunds if necessary). Ooh, a spooky, non-panto Hansel and Gretel! I had a flashback to the bloody and frightening Cinderella the Lyric Hammersmith put on a few years back. Terrifying fairy tales sound good to me and like a nice break from Christmas fairies and talking horses.

This brings us to snowy and cold today, and a house full of (many) children at Queen Elizabeth hall. I was actually quite disappointed to see a fairly traditional stage set up – the website said “Head down to the forest this Christmas as Kneehigh Theatre lead you through a spellbinding world of wit and wonder, earthly delights and eerie woods” and I thought this might mean a promenade version of H&G, which, I think, would have been really awesome. Alas, there was no being led through the woods: only the characters were going to be on stage.

The set up was two-three musician/singer types and four actors, two consistently playing the kids, and a man and a woman playing Mom and Dad then later Birdie and The Witch (as well as a pair of puppet bunnies who had more charm in them than all of Or You Could Kiss Me). Act one was a drawn out affair establishing the kids’ personalities (Hansel, a dreamer and wanna-be intellectual; Gretel, an inventor who makes Rube Goldberg affairs) and then showing the long slide of the Woodcutter’s family into poverty and starvation. The songs performed in this act were all strangely tuneless; however, the theme of being abandoned by your family really seemed to strike a chord with the audience, as there was rather a lot of blubbing, moaning, and choked sobs in the auditorium. I’d forgotten that this fairy tale was not just about a witch: having your family abandon you because they couldn’t take care of you is probably a lot closer to a child’s fears than being eaten alive. At any rate, this story did not have a lot of joking and cute to take the sting of this terror away. Don’t be mistaken: this is a play and NOT a panto and it is not a cheerful tale. My friend said it was even hard to watch as the parent of children under eight, so I can guarantee a four year old should not be brought to this show.

I was relieved when Hansel and Gretel were properly lost and the story could get on with getting on, which happened pretty much right at the break. Act two had a mock banquet with the witch (who looked very much like a panto dame in her garish dress) making lots of food for the kids to eat; then eventually Hansel winds up in a cage while Gretel tries to figure out how to save him, which she does with the help of one of her crazy inventions (a nice plot twist). I don’t think the witch was too scary – in fact, I enjoyed her rather a lot (and I liked the dualism of having her done by the kid’s father) – though the final scene where she is burned and comes out of the fire twice might get a lot of screeches and some terror. Still, that part was a nice bit of theater and I enjoyed it a great deal.

However, I found the show kind of flat overall and just feeling very much “this has been done before.” Even though the puppets were a great touch, I was really hoping for something that would reach out and engage us more, and not by being asked to sing the Canadian national anthem. This goes down as a disappointment for me – it needed to be about 20 minutes shorter and all of the songs needed rewriting. Ah well. Maybe I’ll have better luck when they do Umbrellas of Cherbourg – God knows I am already trying to figure out when I’m going to see it and it’s still months away!

(This review is for a matinee performance that took place on Sunday, December 19th, 2010. The show continues through Sunday, January 2nd, 2011.)

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One Response to “Review – Hansel and Gretel – Kneehigh Theatre at Queen Elizabeth Hall”

  1. Kate Harrad Says:

    I think I liked it more than you did – I enjoyed the songs and it had that Kneehigh feel that I’ve loved ever since Nights at the Circus. But I prefer their adult shows; this felt like a slightly awkward combination of genuinely dark stuff and panto humour.

    Thanks for going to see it with me. 🙂

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