Katie Mitchell’s third show for young audiences and her second collaboration with Lucy Kirkwood is a retelling of the classic fairytale first recorded by the Brothers Grimm. As it opens, we find Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (played by Justin Salinger and Amit Shah) deep in the Black Forest trying, unsuccessfully at first, to “catch stories”.
The elusive stories are represented by coiled balls of cloth that are thrown back and forth across the stage, like airborne fish. Wilhelm tries desperately to catch them in his big net while Jacob explains to the audience what they are doing. He says that it’s been months since they caught a story. When Wilhelm finally does catch one, they bring out the “confabulator” which they explain changes the “stories” into books which they can sell and people can read. Wilhelm accidentally falls into the confabulator pulling his brother in behind him. They fall into the story of Hansel and Gretel.
What then follows is a retelling of the Hansel and Gretel story with Salinger playing the father and Shah the wicked stepmother whose idea it is to abandon the two children in the woods one night so they have fewer mouths to feed. Kate Duchêne hams it up just as she should do as the wicked witch who lures the children into her gingerbread house only to try to fatten up and eat Hansel. The children eventually manage to outwit and dispose of the witch with the help of Rostislav, the Oven (also played by Shah). With the witch defeated, her familiar, Stewart the Bat, is released from his captivity and reveals himself to be a great ballet dancer (played by Salinger). Hansel and Gretel return home to find their stepmother has undergone a personality transplant (she also now has a fox’s tale) and they live happily ever after.
The production follows the Grimms’ story more or less faithfully, with a couple of additional fantastical characters added in, and without the stepmother dying at the end. Perhaps this was considered too upsetting for the young audiences but it does mean that we lose the connection between the stepmother and the witch (the idea that by defeating one they defeat both). Her total personality change did also demand a bit of a leap of faith, as did the idea that this had something to do with getting bitten by a fox.
While some of the ideas don’t feel like they’ve been fully developed, it is in the moments when the production breaks away from faithfully telling a familiar story and introduces more fantastical, anarchic elements that it is at its most exciting and most fun. It seems like a terrible missed opportunity not to have incorporated the Brothers Grimm into the story , where the would-be narrators get caught up in the story they are trying to tell. The first scene with the Brothers promises so much and it’s disappointing to see it become a mere framing device.
It also seemed strange that this first section contains moments of audience interaction and slapstick comedy, which are then more or less abandoned for the rest of the show. Though Amit Shah is cast as the stepmother and the action is punctuated by songs, the production sits uneasily on the edge of the panto tradition and seems unwilling to embrace it in full. The result is that it never really feels like it knows quite what it is or what it wants to be. The same could be said for Kirkwood’s script which occasionally rhymes in the panto tradition and contains some light double-entendres but jerks uneasily around and never really finds its feet rhythmically.
It feels that there are the ideas here for several interesting approaches to telling the story of Hansel and Gretel and that somewhere in its development the production lost its way. For all the efforts of the talented cast and creative team, it never quite finds its way out of the woods.