This production is a visual and sensory extravaganza that blends the dreamlike and the carnivalesque, throwing in acrobats and musicians with live-hand puppets and colourful caravans covered in delicacies.
As the play is about to begin, clowns and acrobats caper about the aisles and a gaudy circus placard has replaced the curtain. The witch slips in and out of rage with a clockwork noise. The trees are played by silent, watchful clowns. I could go on with a list of such scenic quirks, but I must leave some to the imagination.
Stuart Paterson’s retelling of Hansel and Gretel spices up the traditional folktale with mythology. In his version, after having been abandoned to die in the depths of the forest by their father and cruel stepmother, Hansel and Gretel (Shaun Miller and Karen Fishwick) meet the members of a mysterious circus and find themselves ensnared by La Stregamama (played by Irene Allan, double-cast as the stepmother), a cannibalistic witch. Orin, the Fairy-King (John O’Mahony) haunts the woods.
The play deftly juggles the comical and the nightmarish, and is optimistic without being corny. In an early scene, we see Hansel and Gretel waxing lyrical about cake while their sinister stepmother is silhouetted against a sheet to the ominous sound of beating drums composed by Nikola Kodjabashia. Gretel’s indecisiveness is balanced by her brother’s cheeky demeanour, and the two make an attaching duo of grubby and heroic brats. Irene Allan turns La Stregamama into a perverse figure of fun, who has the children’s father (John Kielty) wrapped around her little finger.
The very strong cast is supported by skilful use of puppetry throughout. The melancholy monkey handled by Richard Booth is not far from being my favourite character. The set – a forest, a circus, a barely furnished house – is splendidly designed. This is a superb, lavish production, and you should absolutely not miss it.