Hansel and Gretel, Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, London – review

In my not inconsiderable acquaintance with the Royal Ballet, I can recall few stagings more curious than this new Hansel and Gretel from Liam Scarlett. Scarlett is young, undeniably gifted, a fluent dance-maker. He offers here a transposition of the German fairy-tale, updated to the 1950s and re-located, I venture, in Dullsville, Ohio (with the Cleveland of this week’s news none too far away), and heavily disguised as a study of child-abuse.

Placed on the Linbury stage we find an impoverished and dysfunctional family in a derelict home, with a loathsome cottage nearby whose basement can be brought into full view by a stage lift. It needs but for me to say that the titular children leave home and fall into the hands of a maniac paedophile who inhabits the cottage basement in Bates Motel fashion. (Mama reposes under a dolmen of trash.) He is aided and abetted by The Sandman, who has earlier emerged from the family refrigerator (one should really try to keep the vegetable compartment clean).

For a first act lasting an eternal hour and a second act of a mere 40 minutes, Scarlett rings the all-too-predictable changes on innocence abused and the rampant clichés attendant upon a beheaded teddy bear, a puppet-doll as alter-ego, wicked stepmother and defeated father, with a great deal of vehement choreography that follows well-worn paths in portraying anger, psychosis, guilt and whatever it is that the Sandman is presumed to be feeling. (Regret at leaving the vegetable drawer is my guess.)

A fine cast is involved: James Hay and Leanne Cope vivid as the children; Bennet Gartside and Laura Morera ideal as father and stepmother; Steven McRae wasted as the Sandman. All are admirable, while Brian Maloney as the paedophile Witch superbly combines chilling menace and weird pathos. There is a strong dramatic score from Dan Jones (played in a recording) and suitably unsavoury design from John Bausor. Scarlett has laboured long to make dance that explores this vehemently obvious narrative, but might consider the dictum that less is more. (I kept thinking of MacMillan’s My Brother, My Sisters.) Your critic felt as if he had taken passage on the Titanic.


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