With Hansel And Gretel the festive choice of many theatres across London this Christmas, the Catherine Wheels Theatre company has devised an experience with a difference at the Barbican Theatre, where the audience are invited to explore the dark, eerie wood and sugar-coated cottage of the Grimms’s classic fairytale alongside the two children.
Hansel and Gretel’s wicked stepmother, hard as she tries, can’t seem to lose them in the dense forest surrounding their home. After numerous attempts to get rid of them for good, she discovers they are marking their routes with pebbles. A quick confiscation and some fish bone soup later, and they are back lost in the forest again, this time with only bread crumbs to help them find their way home. When the birds start nibbling their edible track, they give up, resigned to being lost forever.
As darkness falls and the sounds of wolves and other spooky rustlings emerge, the two desperate children hear their names whispered in the wind. Following the sound, they can’t believe their luck when it leads to a cottage made entirely from sweets. When they enter and meet a kind old woman with cakes galore and soft white beds for them to sleep in, they think all their troubles are over, but it is not long before they realise the nightmare has only just begun.
In this 1970s-set production, Hansel and Gretel’s stepmother plays the comic villain – a mixture between bored housewife and dangerous vamp – using her womanly wiles to blind the children’s weak father to her evil ways. Hansel and Gretel themselves, clad in flares and anoraks, are excitable, boisterous children, clambering over the sofa to watch The Goodies, happily walking all over the dinner table at the sweet cottage and starting a food fight, although admittedly, if I’d had the same amount of e-numbers as them, I probably would too. In contrast, the wicked witch of the sugary cottage is a dark and frightening character. After a rendition of Let’s Get Fat Fat Fat (to the tune of Feeling Hot Hot Hot), the seemingly sweet old lady removes her liquorice allsorts cardigan and homely dress to reveal a bald, crazy, ragged-clothed witch, sniffing the children and wailing like an animal.
The selling point of this production is the unique staging. With the help of several hosts, the audience is led round the now unrecognisable stage to follow Hansel and Gretel on their journey and discover what lies deep in the forest. To describe what the audience sees would spoil the fun and surprise of the production, but expect to be invited into the family’s kitsch home, be plunged into darkness as TV screens show Hansel and Gretel in a Blair Witch style video, venture through a spooky doll’s graveyard, attend a party (complete with hats and marshmallows) and get lost in a Christmas tree forest where mysterious sounds all around you suggest Hansel and Gretel are no longer on their own.
For a Christmas show with a twist, the Barbican Theatre’s Hansel And Gretel is a promenade adventure for all the family, but remember, if you go down to the woods tonight, you’re sure for a big surprise…