Stu Baker, Carl Grose, Joanna Holden, Craig Johnson, Giles King, Ian Ross
Next year Kneehigh will be celebrating their thirtieth anniversary; but before they hit the big 3-0 they have created Bristol Old Vic’s Christmas offering in the form of the classic children’s story Hansel and Gretel.
In the programme, co-artistic director Emma Rice writes that this current production is all about being at home; so they have transformed the theatre into their own home, taking over the whole building – there’s even installation art in the front of house area.
The company’s level of invention remains high, even if certain devices will now familiar to those in the audience who have seen their work before.
There is plenty of Christmas cheer on display in Mike Shepherd’s production, with the conventions of festive theatre perfectly transposed into a non-pantomime production. The narrative is wittily and cleverly handled, with animal puppets acting as narrators, and songs to accentuate the story’s more poignant moments.
There are also scenes of mad-cap lunacy and a surprisingly strong sense of underlying fear in the form of the witch, whose presence is felt throughout although she is not seen until just before the interval.
The musical accompaniment, provided by Kneehigh regular Stu Barker and Ian Ross, perfectly compliments the action throughout and their subtle use of underscoring beautifully frames the action without ever being distracting.
The company have also enlisted the services of sculptor Rob Higgs who has created a large metal frame that dominates the stage and from which hang many of the props for the production. This results in a highly effective sense of tension as to whether these props willl actually behave themselves. This reaches a peak in the scene where the witch is knocked into a flaming pit by a swinging cage. The intentionally chaotic feel of the piece results in a real sense of excitement and anticipation throughout.
Rice’s intended message about the importance of home is vividly realised, particularly during the first act when the sense of home is strongly conveyed; and though they perhaps linger a little too long on this, it serves the overall production perfectly. Once Hansel And Gretel are out of the safe confines of their home environment in the second act, and in the clutches of the witch (brilliantly played by Carl Grose) the sense of transition from place of safety to place of peril is marked.
While Grosse’s grotesque witch stands out, the performances of Craig Johnson and Joanna Holden in the title roles are also superb. They are convincingly childlike without overplaying things; but it’s Giles King, who plays their mother and the witch’s companion Hamlet the Bird, who steals the second act with his antics and perfectly timed jokes.
This is a brilliant production, capable of pleasing both children and their parents; those familiar with Kneehigh’s work will find reason to marvel at their unparalleled skill, while those just discovering them for the first time will be left spellbound. This is a company at the very top of their game.