Hansel and Gretel @ Barbican Theatre, London

cast list
Susan Harrison, Steve Kettley, Gill Robertson, Tommy Mullins, Joel Sanderson

directed by
Gill Robertson

For their family Christmas show this year the Barbican has decided to forego panto, modern or otherwise, and do something a bit different. Catherine Wheels Theatre Company have taken the fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel, and staged it as a promenade piece; as such the audience are required to move around the set as they follow the characters on their journeys.

The plot doesn’t stray far from the familiar. Hansel and Gretel live with their stepmother and father, but their stepmother convinces their father to take them to the forest and abandon them – thus reducing the number of mouths that need feeding. Scared and alone in the forest, they stumble upon a house made of cakes and sweets which they enter and begin consuming the chocolate and cream covered feast set out before them. An apparently sweet old lady invites the children to stay the night. The kind old lady is, of course, a witch and Hansel and Gretel must hatch a plan to get them back home before they are turned into kiddie burgers.

From the moment the audience set foot in the elaborate and superbly designed set, it is clear they are in for a treat. Each of the play’s many locations have been created for them to walk through and explore. The adventure begins in a forest which has been created from 10-foot tall trees with wood shavings on the ground. This is followed by the family’s cottage which contains television sets and a dining table. The promenade nature of the production results in the actors getting closer to the audience than normal which makes for a more exciting experience. A second forest scene takes place amidst large black tree-like figures bedecked with a mix of blackbirds and Barbie dolls.

The old lady’s cottage is a beautiful thing, covered with snow and pretty coloured lights. The journey concludes in a huge, vibrant dining room (complete with party hats). The experience of being taken through so many intricately designed locations is amazing in itself and the whole thing has the feel of a fairground ride.

The performances are also excellent, in particular Gill Robertson who plays both the step-mother and the witch. Her song Fat, Fat, Fat, which contains the lyrics: “Don’t you wish your booty was fat like me!” was a particular highlight.

At just 70 minutes, the production whips along, though there some lulls in the early scenes. Much of the production’s atmospheric music is provided live by Joel Sanderson and his cello. He does an excellent job of building up tension where necessary.

This is an excellent family show, a real treat, which will appeal to all ages. Children will love the colour and spectacle while adults will marvel at the detail of the design and the commitment of the cast.

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