Christmas Review
 

 

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Kneehigh presents

Hansel and Gretel

HG Witch with Hansel Gretel - (l-r) Joey Holden Carl Grose Craig Johnson

 

Written by Carl Grosse

 

Directed by Mike Shepherd

 

Queen Elizabeth Hall - Southbank Centre

 

16 December 2010 – 2 January 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

A review by Richard J Thornton for EXTRA! EXTRA!

Is it a pantomime? Is it subversive comedy? Kneehigh’s new Christmas production of the Grimm classic Hansel and Gretel can’t make up its mind, which leaves it dry, un-absorbing and much like a show that’s all dressed up with nothing to say.

At the outset, the production is full of promise: Michael Vale’s beautifully crafted playground set, complete with Swiss family Robinson-esque wooden cages and contraptions is as inviting as a brightly decorated Christmas tree piled thick with presents. But sadly, once the presents are opened, that is, once the cast is revealed, the magic is lost, and the environment, much like Boxing Day, falls into an inevitable tedium. So where does it all go wrong?

Well the script feels like a repetitive and patronising children’s story with no sense of originality, insight or rhythm. It lacks the charm and simplicity of a fairy tale, and instead drifts off into moronic dialogic asides between animal puppets which distract from the plot rather than add to it. The plot itself has no pace and no tension; there’s no immediacy to any action and the first hour is a frustrating whirlwind that’s aching to leave the monotonous family home.

Perhaps the script could have been saved by some choice direction and creative characterisation. Unfortunately, these were also misplaced, misjudged and under thought. Each member of the woodland family seems to come from a different place, which, if intended to be quirky, falls flat and simply jars. Carl Grose’s father character feels as if he’s just turned up and put on lederhosen, the mother’s eastern European accent is boring and tiresome, and Hansel and Gretel’s whining northern English accents confuse rather than clarify, and with the introduction of Birdie in the second act, one wonders whether the show is confusing itself with a remake of Kes. There’s no consistency, and therefore no family bond. For all their lyrics about the strength of their family unit, there’s not a breath of emotion, and there’s no audience concern whether the children leave, stay, or never come back for the second act.

The second act itself is stronger: there’s more drama and the underused set becomes a slice more interactive. The most exciting scenes are undoubtedly Gretel’s domino-like contraption sequences, but even these are difficult to focus on with the distracting bellowing which dominates upstage. The act also feels a little a rushed, and considering the tedium of the first, begs the question as to why it wasn’t given a little more show time. Once the family house has been shed, the tension does build, and the ‘children’ (I’ll come to this in a minute) do seem to unite against the witch. But even the dame-witch is under-characterised - the one fool-proof personality of the story has been corrupted and diluted into an unimpressive diva. Her companion Birdie is also disappointingly unimagined, and despite her odd but welcome interlude of ‘O Canada’, fails to add any attractive layer to the piece.

The casting is another stumbling block as all the actors are the same age despite their familial relationship. But despite a continued reference to the generational gap, no age difference transmits to the audience. There’s nothing wrong with casting adults as children, and young adults as elderly, but surely such a decision must be coupled with some strong direction, ensuring the audience really feel the characters’ age. As it stands, the show feels cocksure and under-prepared, as if the company feel they can wing it on their expensive set and stellar reputation.

The set and costumes are beautiful, there’s no doubt. But it does feel more like you’re watching a vintage fashion promenade than a theatrically crafted production. The fabric hens are sumptuously woven, and each detail of every prop is nothing less than artisan. But as the saying goes, ‘you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear’, and you definitely can’t polish a … well, you get the picture.

One redeeming feature of the piece is Ian Ross’s music; the score is the one thing that succeeds in mixing the dark undertones and cheery attitude that the rest of the show seeks. TJ Holmes’ double bass broods, Benji Bower’s accordion wallows and the soft whisper singing of the ensemble enriches the entire movement. Once again though, the flaccid and clichéd lyrics are more soporific than stimulating, and slowly but surely the music becomes just another nail in the coffin.

All the above criticisms could perhaps be scrapped if at any moment the show felt as if it was directed at children. The only indication of this though, is the mindless Telly Tubby-esque repetition, and even this was too subtle to hook the kids. Either the characters needed to be larger, to draw in the children, or more subtly sculpted, to engage the adults – but the tepid middle ground is as deadly as quicksand.

It’s shame when such an acclaimed theatre company as Kneehigh fail to impress, especially when they’re renowned for forging original theatre in off-beat realms. But perhaps this production is proof that sticking to what you know isn’t always your safest bet, because there’s little less attractive than subversive art that fails to subvert, or off-the-wall the theatre that plods by like schoolboy Shakespeare, without even the script to hold it up.

 

Box Office: www.southbankcentre.co.uk / 020 7960 4200

Queen Elizabeth Hall
Southbank Centre
Belvedere Road
SE1 8XX

7.30pm
Tickets: £27.50/£20/£15

 

 

 

 

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