The Tobacco Factory Christmas shows have become a Bristol institution, loved by audiences and critics, and now finding success elsewhere (Sally Cookson’s production of Cinderella, last year’s triumph, opens at the St. James Theatre, London, next week). As you enter the theatre following a snowy path through the woods and take your seat the buzz created by this intimate space is palpable.
This year New International Encounter has devised a witty, wintry take on one of the Grimm Brothers’ bleakest tales. The show, devised by a versatile company of five, actors and musicians all, and directed by Alex Byrne, provides many of the pleasures one has come to expect from this venue: expressive physicality, the mix of puppetry and human actors, songs, humour and a willingness to confront the darker fears of childhood. The company makes a virtue of its multi-national and multi-lingual nature: the text uses bits of various European languages, there are questions about the meaning of words and the stepmother’s tirades against her husband and his children are in Norwegian (there are no comprehension problems). The performances are all first-rate. Unai Lopez De Armentia is an engaging Hansel, solicitous of his sister (most of the time) and willing to ask his father tough questions. Carly Davies, convinced that she’s “failed as a witch” when Hansel fails to plump up, is a fine comic turn; her song ‘I eat the face. I eat the nose’ is one of many memorable musical numbers. Mia Hawk’s terrifying stepmother, Rew Lowe’s spineless father desperately trying to ingratiate himself with the audience and Stefanie Mueller’s delightful Gretel are equally strong performances.
Humour is the dominant note of the evening and there are jokes for all ages. The issue of the stereotyping of stepmothers is deftly dealt with. There are knowing references to Jungian archetypes and the Big Society. The opening song reassures us that it was all a long time ago so “Please don’t be concerned”. The characters often address the audience directly, justifying their actions or thanking us for our support. The actors step out of character and talk to each other or to us, asking questions, discussing the show as it progresses, arguing about the story and the characters. This post-modern stuff is often very funny, but it comes at a price. It may seem churlish to find fault with a show that is so entertaining and inventive and provides such pleasure, but the end lacks the poignancy one might have hoped for. New International Encounter, though, are an extremely talented company whose next show one awaits with interest.