Friday, December 01, 2017

Hansel & Gretel - turning the Grimm tale on its head for this time of austerity (The MAC until 7 January)

Hansel & Gretel is back on a festive Belfast stage with Stephen Beggs and Simon Magill’s reimagining of the Brothers Grimm tale. The setting is whisked out of the dark forest into the bright and shiny shopping centre, and it’s the parents who are greedy rather than the more down fiscally realistic kids.

In a very sweet opening scene, Gretel (Rosie Barry) sits at the family’s upright piano, playing and singing a soulful rendition of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas before being interrupted by her ever-so-slightly younger twin Hansel (Michael Drake).

The two siblings are gearing up for an austere Christmas, making the most of what they’ve got to prepare the house on Christmas Eve. But Mum (Louise Matthews) and Dad (Keith Lynch) are determined to put a dent in their already battered credit card and spend their way into having a great Christmas despite his job loss during the year. It’s as if currency does grown on the famed magic money tree.

The action switches to a two level shopping centre set. An overworked security guard (Keith Singleton) pops up with announcements about the worsening weather. The centre closes and Hansel and Gretel are trapped inside (rather than being left behind in a forest). But the storm has brought various fictional characters to life, including a rather evil Sugar Witch (Colette Lennon) with the Big Bad Wolf (Richard Croxford) in tow whose sweet factory assistants (including Brigid Shine) really should join a trade union and fight for better adherence to health and safety policies in the sweet factory.

A child is kidnapped. A batch of liquorice is made. Disempowered cartoon super heroes and storybook characters come to the life. And a green-suited Santa (the second of the season) appears on the right side of the joint quest to escape and return home.

Throw in some songs, excellent singing across most of the cast, good choreography, snow and some amazing costumes from Carla Barrow (the upside down ‘A’ built into Awesome Man’s outfit together with Fantasti-Girl’s sparkling outfit, boots and a platinum blond wig straight out of Dynasty) means that this production should be cooking on gas (as the show’s sponsor might say).

Yet a little bit of Christmas magic seemed to be missing. Hansel & Gretel succeeds in not being a pantomime and avoids most of the familiar tropes. However, while the cast physically step off stage and out into the audience, there’s very little encouragement for the young audience to engage with the story and the action. They’re passive observers, chewing on the candy from the Phoenix Sweetie Shop downstairs, sitting back in their chairs instead of leaning forward wanting to be part of the magic. It’s a bit of an opportunity missed, particularly at Christmas, and particularly when Colette Lennon is such a brilliantly unpleasant baddie that deserves spontaneous boos and the good guys have such bounce in their steps. [Update - word reaches me that the show has bedded in and the level of audience engagement has improved!]

Michael Drake impresses in his first professional role and Keith Singleton is irrepressible as he switches between the security guard, Peter Pan and various other high-energy characters. There’s a lot of attention to detail in the choreography and the sustained mannerisms of each characters. Rhiann Jeffrey has left no stone unturned in her vision for her for Christmas solo directorial debut. Louise Matthews and Keith Lynch work well together as parents, but really shine when they morph into the American accented cartoon duo. Garth McConaghie’s score is a great showcase for Colette Lennon’s voice which confidently soars to notes that Kate Bush might struggle to hit. The fabulous Three Pigs appearance on-stage is all-too-short, much like their curly tails.

While cast in a reimagined Hansel and Gretel for the second Christmas in a row, Rosie Barry has been able to throw off last year’s sulky Primrose from the Lyric’s Gingerbread Mix Up and create a much more likeable and wholesome role model as Gretel. After a terrific mood-setting penultimate song, about thirty seconds from the end of the second half Gretel sat back down at the piano and hit a chord: magic returnsed, and the glitz was replaced with a tangible family unit. A really powerful and tear-inducing moment to end the show.

Hansel & Gretel runs in The MAC until 7 January 2018.

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