REVIEW: Hansel & Gretel

There is a moment in The MAC's production of Hansel & Gretel, directed by Rhiann Jeffrey from a script by Stephen Beggs & Simon Magill, where Hansel (Michael Drake) finds himself wrapped in white lights as his parents, contrary to Grimm's, proclaim that they will give their children the best Christmas, ever regardless of funds.

The lights themselves are drained of colour and Hansel's bonds are rather tight. In a split second, the pain of contemporary cutbacks, the strangulation of commercialism, and the loss of lustre in the holidays hit home, raising the Grinchian epiphany that "Christmas doesn't come from a store (and) means a little bit more."

It's the production's, and Jeffrey's, knack of capitalising on these little moments – and the big ones! – that take Hansel & Gretel beyond your typical panto and also establish Jeffrey as Belfast's finest theatre director. She understands the heart and mechanics of what she works with and inspires her, tying them to humane performances and intelligent, thematic visuals. And it's no different here.

We meet Gretel (Rosie Barry) as she plays and sings "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" at the piano, while an annoyed Hansel tries winding up his sister, as brothers do, by playing a recorder out of tune. Two unfulfilled hearts, one musical, one not-as-musical, appeasing themselves in different ways, before unifying to sing of their brother-sister love in the first of many top-notch, eighties-inspired Garth McConaghie tunes. Its Michael Buble beat very easily gets you swinging.

The parents (Keith Lynch & Louise Mathews) take the children to the not-coincidentally named Emerald Square shopping centre, where a loud-mouthed security guard (Keith Singleton), shop assistant (Brigid Shine), the AwesomeMan and Fantasti-Girl comic books, a green-coloured but red-hearted Santa Claus (Richard Croxford), and Colette Lennon's not-very-sweet confectioner Isobel Candy (I. Candy - get it?) roam. Where the line between austere reality and colourful fantasy is very fine. Like – yes – The Wizard Of Oz.

An electrical storm forces everyone out of the centre, but Hansel and Gretel are too late, and find themselves in a world with no forest or gingerbread house - just a Peter Pan (Singleton) & Tinkerbell (Shine) who can't fly, two superheroes with no powers (Lynch & Mathews), a Red Riding Hood in drag (Singleton), a silly wolf who's big and bad only in looks (Croxford), three not-at-all little pigs, and the dreaded Sugar Witch (Lennon) who wants to boil children down to liquorice.

All that, not to mention Stuart Marshall's great sets, Paula O'Reilly's sharp choreography and Carla Barrow's vibrant costumes, is a lot to take in, but the pacing and balance is so swift and well-timed that the magic and humour sufficiently entrances adults and children, even if it doesn't really call for their involvement. For the joy is more in the showing than the telling - there is always something fun to see wherever you look.

As the titular duo, Rosie Barry and debutant Michael Drake shine. Barry embraces the energy of The Gingerbread Mix-Up's superbrat Primrose while eschewing the Veruca Salt for more of a Charlotte Bucket, someone low on money but high on love. Drake plays Hansel as a charmingly naïve walking Wikipedia, irritating only to those who don't "get" him. The remainder of the ensemble take equal pleasure in their real-world roles as their fantasy world roles - perhaps more so in the latter for Keith Lynch and his very funny AwesomeMan. And the effervescent Lennon plays her witch as a sort of Wilhelmina Wonka in Rocky Horror, her world of pure imagination a never-ending tunnel of nightmares. But not too scary. (It's a kids' show.)

A charming Christmas casserole of discovery, bravery and family values in a cruel world of materialism, Hansel & Gretel offers much more jingle all the way than Jingle All The Way ever did. (With apologies to the Governator and Turboman.)

Simon Fallaha

Hansel & Gretel runs until January 7 2018 at The MAC, Belfast.

Recent Theatre Reviews