The glut of seasonal theatrical entertainment for children is almost at an end. This year, we've seen Sadler's Wells' The Snowman and Peter & The Wolf at the Royal Festival Hall and we decided to go for a hat trick with KneeHigh's production of Hansel & Gretel.
Ostensibly a morality tale which boils down to "don't talk to strangers offering sweets, even if those sweets are literally the size of a house", KneeHigh have gone all Roald Dahl on this tale, stuffing it with macabre overtones, a larger-than-life villain, clever contraptions and precocious children.
In this adaptation, Hansel (Chris Price) is the bookworm brother, a boy "so clever he's daft" according to his father while Gretel (Joanna Holden) is the outgoing tomboy never without her goggles, the steampunk sister looking for all the world like a Teutonic Tank Girl. Her largescale Heath Robinsonesque inventions are a definite highlight especially her mousetrap, easily as elaborate as the toy equivalent. Amidst the generally downbeat first half, we were glad for the light relief provided by the animal characters. The rabbit and chicken puppets were so chucklesome we half-expected to see Statler & Waldorf heckling from the gods.
The second half is where this show excels. After spending the overlong first half as the woodcutting father, Carl Grose takes centre-stage as the dragged-up witch, short on sight but long on wickedness and charisma. At one point, he thanks the audience for applauding his cannibalistic desires. There's plenty more laughs and action, a showstopping feat of engineering from Gretel plus a poignant memorial to the witch's past victims before the family are finally re-united with enough food to make Tiny Tim jealous.
KneeHigh have been going for thirty years and we can see why. They are innovative souls who are not afraid to be bold in all things theatrical and we're already looking forward to their upcoming return to London in March with The Red Shoes at Battersea Arts Centre. Here's a taster: