THE TWISTED TALE OF HANSEL AND GRETEL
Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 4th April, 2018
In the first of a planned series of collaborations, Birmingham Hippodrome, Open Theatre Company and Metro-Boulot-Dodo stage this new production to bring learning disabled performers to the fore, during the creative process and the performance. This is perhaps the biggest ‘twist’ on offer, although the show has a few pleasant surprises in its retelling of the Brothers Grimm story.
At the helm is our Storyteller (Nicky Priest) bombastic, condescending and all the funnier because of it. He bows to the will of the cast when they demand the story needs ‘jazzing up’ and we watch in delight as things slip out of his control and he descends into neurosis. Priest is superb, the lynchpin of the performance, holding things together. He is assisted by Mockingbird (Charles Craggs) whose musical accompaniment and sound effects underscore the action. Mockingbird is a subversive presence, undermining the Storyteller, but he is a vital cog in the show’s machinery, providing vocalisations that allow the actors to focus on choreographed movements.
Director Esther Simpson enables the cast to play to their strengths. Her script gives most of the dialogue to the Storyteller and Mockingbird so that lines spoken by other characters comes across as punchlines and make us laugh. It’s a very physical performance style, as cartoon-like, the characters enact the events of the old tale. They’re all rather adept at this but Jake Jervis, appearing as the evil Stepmother and later as the Witch, is delightfully funny. Luke Greenwood is charming as the Dad and a Chef (yes, there’s a Chef in it), while Kimisha Lewis makes for a feisty Gretel, fighting against the stereotypical behaviour the story expects of her. Rishard Beckett is an expressive, energetic Hansel, but it is Vicki Taylor’s deadpan Duck who steals the show (yes, there’s a duck in it) – a running joke, or rather, a waddling one – holding up placards as speech balloons with immaculate timing.
Kate Unwin’s costumes are like children’s drawings of the characters. Her set of building blocks that are stacked up and reconfigured to represent the family home and the gingerbread house, add to the storybook-nursery feel, but setting them up and taking them down takes a lot of time and interrupts the otherwise fast-paced action.
On the whole, this is an amusing and charming way to spend an hour or so. The back-and-forth between the Storyteller and the Mockingbird (excellently delivered though it is) could do with trimming to keep the pace punchy but, as the production embarks on a tour, I’m sure things will tighten up as they go.
Fun for all the family, this is an age-old story of child poverty, neglect and abuse – but don’t let that put you off!