19 Jun 2019

An enchanting Hansel and Gretel at Regent's Park Theatre

If you go out in the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise. And, it will be no picnic! For, deep in the broomstick forest that director Timothy Sheader and designer Peter McKintosh have planted on the revolving stage at Regent’s Park Theatre is a veritable Witches’ Training School.

And, its grungy recruits - chain-smoking, scowling witches-in-waiting - are already masters of the arts of evil enchantment, luring the innocent with striped bags of humbugs, Catherine-wheel lollipops and twinkling twigs towards the Head of the Coven’s oven. They prowl menacingly during the overture to this new production of Hansel and Gretel, as a bright-eyed bunch of children are sent off into the woods. Their lumberjack shirts may keep them warm, but Mother’s words of warning will be quickly forgotten: the sweet treats strewn along the woodland path are all too tempting.

Renewing their partnership with ENO (after last year’s The Turn of the Screw ), Regent’s Park Theatre now present Humperdinck’s take on the Grimm Brothers’ rite-of-passage tale of children abandoned, endangered and ultimately saved by their own ingenuity, and Sheader keeps homeliness and horror in good balance.

Rosie Aldridge and Duncan Rock.jpgRosie Aldridge (Mother) and Duncan Rock (Father). Photo credit: Johan Persson.

McKintosh’s set blends fidelity and fantasy with a sure touch. The stained sink, wonky table and bare shelves in the family cottage reek of real poverty, while the leaning walls have a fairy-tale tilt. During the children’s journey through the bristly thicket, the cottage is transformed before our eyes, deconstructed by the hovering hags until it’s just a skeleton that merges with the spindly trunks. Their path lit by fairy-lights blinking in the broom-branches, the children follow the lollipop stepping-stones that lead to the Witch’s house: a monstrous Battenberg cake, adorned with a swizzel-stick chimney and glace cherries glowing like warning lights. The sight of this sugary edifice sends the starving siblings into a frenzy of feasting, and they don’t notice the gingerbread men fence-cum-gravestones, with their eerily glowing eyes, which guard the mouth-watering mansion. Once inside, though, the outsize oven quickly pushes pretence aside.

Hurrell and Kelly.jpgSusanna Hurrell (Gretel) and Rachel Kelly (Hansel). Photo credit: Johan Persson.

There are always going to be some compromises to be made in this venue but in this production they seem a virtue. Some discrete amplification is employed but it’s, for once, skilfully and consistently managed, and every word of the text is clearly heard. Derek J Clark’s orchestral reduction of Humperdinck’s opulent score is masterly: led by Janice Graham the twenty-strong ensemble, seated behind a screen at the rear, play with sparkle and punch, the seven string players forming a surprisingly sumptuous blend and the woodwind and brass players doubling instruments, enabling Clark to retain Humperdinck’s variegated palette. Ben Glassberg conducts a slick performance in which ‘stage’ and ‘pit’ are in consistent alignment: all the more remarkable given that, although there are numerous monitors to guide the cast, the choreography is busy and at time stakes them to the further reaches of the tiered auditorium.

Indeed, Lizzi Gee’s movement direction is superb. The children’s rough-and-tumble antics; the dream sequence, in which the children really do ‘take flight’ into fantasy; the delicate dancing of the en pointe duplicates of the dazzling Dew Fairy (He Wu), with their ‘milk-bottles’ of dew droplets; the reawakening of the lost children and the final chorus in celebration of this miracle: all are brilliantly conceived and executed. And, the choreography provides the production with a judicious moment of tongue-in-cheek kitsch. Reunited with his toy aeroplane by the sympathetic Sandman (Gillian Keith), the sleeping Hansel’s imagination powers a ‘lift-off’ to paradise. A bleached-blond flight crew arrive, smiles beaming and uniforms spic-and-span, and semaphore their pre-flight briefing before the excited children soar into the air on the surging wave of Humperdinck’s score, to be greeted by their parents bearing the balloons that will float them to wonderland. It’s terrifically well done.

Dream flight.jpgHansel and Gretel Company. Photo credit: Johan Persson.

The main roles are double-cast, and on this occasion Rachel Kelly (Hansel) and Susanna Hurrell (Gretel) formed an absolutely credible pair of mischievous children, singing and acting with freshness and genuineness, and evincing tremendous rapport. There is a lovely moment of sibling warmth when, settling down to sleep, Hansel insists that his sister lie top-to-toe alongside him, only - when the chill of the night air punctures his fa├žade of courage - to change his mind and welcome her to share his ‘pillow’. With a simple set, and much to distract an audience in the open-air arena (helicopters, blackbirds …), the pair worked with unwavering, tireless attention to detail in order to compel our attention. Kelly’s gamine Hansel was less prone to a temper tantrum than is sometimes the case with the boisterous lad, but his geniality was deepened by the mezzo’s dark shine, while Hurrell’s soprano brightened beautifully as it rose, adding feminine sparkle.

Alasdair Elliott as Witch.jpgAlasdair Elliott (Witch). Photo credit: Johan Persson.

Rosie Aldridge sang commandingly as the put-upon Mother who hopes that the National Lottery will answer her prayers, while Duncan Rock gave a performance of vigour and heartiness as the lusty Father whose obvious love for his children is worn on his chequered sleeve. Alasdair Elliott was a particularly nasty Witch, wasting no time in whipping off ‘her’ wig, swapping scarlet stilettos for scruffy slippers, and flinging aside his drag-queen cleavage pads in disgust. Any delusions that the children had were brusquely despatched and in no time Hansel found himself caged under a table being force-fed via a funnel and tube while Gretel gasped in horror and fear. However, for all this Witch’s violence and vulgarity - ‘she’ used a can of aerosol cream as make-do foam, when shaving her legs - Elliott shaped the lines with refinement and his tenor had an air of dignity. The juxtaposition of nastiness and nobleness was striking.

Hansel and Gretel Company.jpgHansel and Gretel Company. Photo credit: Johan Persson.

Children from the Pimlico Music Foundation formed a captivating chorus at the close. Taking off their John Lennon sunglasses, touched by human hands that restored them from darkness to light, they sang with warmth and joy - an utterly charming end to an enchanted evening.

Claire Seymour

Hansel - Rachel Kelly, Gretel - Susanna Hurrell, Mother - Rosie Aldridge, Father - Duncan Rock, Witch - Alasdair Elliott, Sandman - Gillian Keith, Dew Fairy - He Wu, Dance & Ensemble Captain - Billy Warren; Director - Timothy Sheader, Conductor - Ben Glassberg, Designer - Peter McKintosh, Movement Director - Lizzi Gee, Lighting Designer - Oliver Fenwick, Sound Designer - Nick Lidster for Autograph, Singers/Dancers from Arts Education Schools London and Bird College Conservatoire for Dance and Musical Theatre.

Regent’s Park Theatre, London; Monday 17th November 2019.