If you’ve ever read the original Hansel and Gretel fairytale by the Brothers Grimm, you’ll know it’s a pretty dark story of child neglect, witchy terror and ovens. So just how does RBL Theatre company present this as a festive Christmas family show this year?
Well, as with everything RBL do, they’ve flipped the narrative, presenting us with their own original, even joyous, take on the classic fairytale. This version is an encouraging show with a loving message at its core and lots of entertainment along the way. And importantly, it’s enormous fun.
Their modern script, written by Anna Wheatley – who also wrote last year’s outstanding original A Christmas Carol – is energetic and colourful, shifting the action to the Festival of the Forest and the message to how we communicate and share our thoughts and passions with one another.
On arrival, the audience are given glow sticks and face glitter to get in the festival vibe, which comes through in a bumping soundtrack, dance scenes and audience interaction. If you’ve ever been to a trance night, you’ll feel right at home. If that’s your idea of hell, it may take a moment to settle in to the story.
Which brings me to the story. Hansel and Gretel are modern day twins. Hansel is non verbal and communicates largely through dance and physical mime. Gretel is a spoken word performer, meaning the show has a lively, nursery rhyme cadence.
They’re raised by particularly odious parents Heike and Torston, who, after falling on hard times, decide to get rid of their kids in order to save on the housekeeping. That’s instead of selling their cows, or the beloved cat.
They lead their children into the middle of the forest – here under the disguise of tickets to the Festival of the Forest, and plan to leave them there to get lost. While Gretel is in her element, as she encounters brilliant side characters including palm readers, ravers and beat poets, Hansel panics and follows his famous trail of stones home.
Eventually the twins find their way back together, stumbling across the ‘witch’s house’. This is where the story takes a turn and all is not as you expect it to be, embracing joy instead of fear – something we could all use right now.
Like last year’s Christmas special A Christmas Carol, the cast is small and double up on parts. This shows off the impressive versatility of the cast. Meghan Treadway is fast and fluid, convincingly switching between gleefully bitchy and kitschy mother Heike, a tripped-out raver, and an edgy festival organiser.
Similarly Daniel Creasey switches seamlessly between clueless father Torston and the witch Hexa, impressively channeling the formidable supervisor Roz from Monsters Inc.
Oriana Charles embraces the spoken word with ease as Gretel coming across as a convincing new artist. But Oscar Porter must have the most difficult role, conveying meaning without words. Despite not speaking, his character’s physical presence is striking, conveying warmth and fear with his actions.
Reflecting the fairytale origins, staging and direction are almost childlike, with big bold colours and round familiar shapes. The gingerbread house is a delight of candy canes and giant biscuits, while the forest is skillfully represented with hanging ribbons of colourful fabric and neon day-glo signs. Audience participation is encouraged and even involved at some points throughout the show, giving the production a welcoming community vibe.
By the end of the play, the final message makes it clear that everyone should be welcome in our community, accepted and free to be themselves. After a warming final act, and an encouraged audience dance off, you will leave upbeat and uplifted. And that’s just how you want to feel at a Christmas show.
Hansel and Gretel is at South Street Arts Centre until 31 December 2019. It’s family friendly and suitable for children around 8 and up. Buy tickets online.
Hello! I'm Claire, the founding editor of Explore Reading. I'm a Reading native and former digital director of Time Out Shanghai. I founded Explore Reading so no one can say, ‘there’s nothing to do in Reading’, again. When not editing Explore Reading, I'm probably drinking a Manhattan.