From Ancient Greeks to German Gothic is a mighty long way, and when I tell you that it’s hard to believe the last Kneehigh Theatre production I saw was back in 2004, you have some idea of the kind of impact this company can make.
While keeping mainly to the well known fairytale, with all its grim details, they magic it into something even more memorable. For a start, the staging is staggering (literally, now and again): a huge structure like an explosion in a mad scientist’s garden shed, odds and ends suspended from roof and sides. It overhangs a shallow, circular well serving as various interiors, notably as a kind of mini theatre, where the puppets very nearly beat the humans hands down. Like they say, ever act with children and animals - or those assuming such roles.
Joanna Holden is convincing and captivating as sensible Gretel with a useful gift for invention, as necessity demands. Her twin, Hansel (Craig Johnson), fascinated by facts, is a sturdy sidekick to both her and his Dad (Carl Grose), a performance which is all the funnier since his voice’s rising and falling matches their vicissitudes. Grose also scrubs up as an extraordinary lady, if courtesy of the League of Gentlemen, spiced by a touch of Little Britain and Monty Python. As does Giles King, who almost steals the show playing the witch’s familiar, a bizarre bird of little brain but colossal ambition. He begs, borrows and steals appreciation, successfully cajoling the audience into applause.
The first half was a little on the slow side, a bit bogged down in domesticity and daily life, though enlivened by Diane and Maureen (the chickens, and they may put you off eggs for life). Likewise the rabbits; two of which seem to end up nestling in the witch’s frock. But overall, it’s a lovely, inspired balance of dark and light, silliness and common sense, the down to earth and flights of fancy. The inventive special effects (from things being waved around on the end of a fishing rod to carefully constructed and timed stunts), delightful music (mostly from Stu Barker and Ian Ross) and catchy songs enthralled adults and children alike.
So if you go down to the woods today, you are in for a great surprise – and something quite enchanting.