The perfect family show at Christmas is a big ask for theatres. The pressure is on to cater for the biggest range of audiences they see all year. They expect fun, jokes, a good story, great visual effects, excellent acting, maybe some catchy songs (but not annoyingly so) and a happy ending to boot. If you are looking for all these things rolled into one glorious package of festive wonder, head down to the Rose Theatre in Kingston because they have cracked the perfect Christmas show.
As Brothers Grimm fairytales go, Hansel and Gretel is one of the darkest. Children abandoned by their parents in a forest with only a slice of bread each, finding a gingerbread house, only to be kidnapped by a witch who wants to eat them. The witch may die (pushed into an oven by Gretel) and the children may return to their father with riches to share, but it is not necessarily bedtime reading if you want a comfortable sleep.
Fortunately, this new version of the story adapted by Ciaran McConville, is a bright and hopeful production, brimming with wit, bravery, girl-power and magic. Since 2014 the Christmas productions at the Rose Theatre have been focused around their youth theatre and this year there is so much talent to be seen, it is truly breathtaking.
Set in Freiburg, in Germany's Black Forest, the story follows orphans Hansel and Gretel who are sent away for a better life by the town's seemingly kindly mayor. It quickly becomes clear that the mayor is actually exchanging orphans for food with the wicked witch Circe, who haunts the forest. The children must work with their new fairytale friends to defeat Circe and try and find their mother, who may actually be alive.
With two youth teams, press night saw the incredibly talented Green Team on stage.Sylvie Varcoe and Oliver Smith made the superb duo of Gretel and Hansel: Varcoe is confident and totally convincing as the wise and brave Gretel. She is the de facto adult and you can feel the weight of responsibility on her shoulders. Her interaction with Smith is perfect as the squabbling siblings. Smith himself is a suitably annoying little brother, with very natural stage presence and wit.
In a brilliant cast, standout performances come from Vanessa Fisher as a sassy Red Riding Hood brimming with attitude and Georgina White as determined Circe the Witch. In the youth team, Anna Pryce, Francis Redfern and Jack Hardman make a great narration team, with Frankie Oldham excelling as the straight-laced Adelbert.
The creative team have come up with a wonderfully clever and imaginative set. A huge storybook opens to reveal a digital backdrop where pages turn to reveal beautiful images of the haunted forest, Circe's dungeon and the hideout of Grub. Lucie Arnoux's poetic illustrations combine with Letty Fox's design and animation and is detailed and incredibly effective, especially when combined with Amy Mae's excellent lighting. The scene where Gretel finally defeats Circe is almost filmic in its effectiveness. Despite a few sound issues on the night, the overall effect is captivating.
Adam Wiltshire's gingerbread house is a highlight, with a well with a chocolate button roof, a path made of giant Smarties and candy floss smoke coming from the chimney. Sue Dacre's puppets are also highly effective. A grizzly bear lurks in dark corners and a sinuous and menacing wolf prowls as Circe's sidekick.
This is a wonderful, magical production, full of comedy, morality and inspiration to find your inner strength. I can think of no better message, especially at this time of year.
By Aliya Al-Hassan