Of all fairy-tales, Hansel and Gretel is surely one of the grimmest. Most things a child might fear – a dead parent, a malevolent step-parent, abandonment, kidnapping, being eaten – are present, with a frightening forest and a famine chucked in for good measure. I’ve seen productions that really brought some of this home, but Katie Mitchell’s new staging at the National Theatre walks a careful line between frisson of fear and downright terror. The result is a show that is charmingly inventive and has many wonderful quirks, but slightly pulls its punches and works a little too hard at physical comedy, as if anxious to reassure everyone that it’s all good fun really.
There’s a music hall element to the show, which opens with the Brothers Grimm, here a vaudeville double act, pursuing stories (golden-snitch-like objects that whizz about the forest) with a butterfly net. Once caught, the story goes into the “confabulator”, an elaborate contraption that steams and gurgles and, rather over-enthusiastically, swallows the Grimm brothers as well, so we all end up inside the story. Vicki Mortimer’s attractive 2D storybook design has a do-it-yourself element, with actors whipping walls in and out to make speedy scene changes. Meanwhile Lucy Kirkwood’s rhyming translation is sharp and droll and has a helpful way of getting to the point. “You’re their mother now – stop trying to kill them,” says Hansel and Gretel’s father to his mean new wife.
Kate Duchêne’s witch is neatly pitched between weirdly funny and creepy and is furnished with a juicy solo justifying her choice of diet (music, by Paul Clark, played by John Paul Gandy on an absurdly augmented piano). Among several wackily surreal touches, her pet bat plays the euphonium and finally reveals himself to be an enchanted ballet star, while her oven incorporates a Cossack dancer, grumpy about being chained to the kitchen. Justin Salinger and Amit Shah slip neatly from being the moustachioed Grimm brothers to playing the children’s father and stepmother respectively. And Ruby Bentall makes an astute little Gretel, with Dylan Kennedy as her more trusting brother.
It’s a pleasing show, but it doesn’t quite hit the heights, scurrying through the more exciting bits of the plot, particularly the final tricking of the witch, which makes for a sense of anti-climax. There is much to admire along the way, though, and a life lesson to take home: never, ever sit on a confabulator.