If there was such a place as Pantoland, the Citizens Theatre would be an independent rebel state. No dames. No regional references. No Katy Perry songs. Built on artistic integrity and ancient folklore, their Christmas exports are creative and original, denying spurious star turns a visa and attempting to reinvent stories which have fascinated us for centuries. And this fairy story is no different.
Written by Alan McHugh, this sharp retelling of the classic German tale follows a familiar plot, taking a few turns in the dark woods along the way. Here, the witch is not just an old hag with an insatiable appetite but a mystical enchantress named Vanya, a thousand year old shape-shifting succubus who steals into Hansel and Gretel's family home in the belief that capturing their father's heart will buy her everlasting life.
And therein lies the issue with Guy Hollands' Hansel and Gretel. Narratively speaking, the play has more in common with The Hand that Shook the Cradle than with the familiar story of the two Black Forest kinder in lederhosen. Its focus is not on the children of the fairytale, wide-eyed, greedy and fraught with the anxieties of being alone in a dark wood, but on the adult relationships which bore them.
As a consequence, this production fails to capture that sense of childhood excitement and awe and, outside of the superb climax inside the witch's beautiful Battenberg house, is a relatively colourless evening.
And yet, there is much to savour in this production, the final mouthful of a great year at the Citz. Jennifer Harraghy plays tempestuous temptress Vanya quite beautifully, scowling and growling through a painted on smile, ravenous and riveting in lace and velvet.
David Carlyle and Gemma McElhinney are wonderful as the stranded siblings, singing Claire McKenzie's earthy and original folk songs with heart and compassion and managing to play pre-teens without relying on nobbly knees or effecting nursery room accents.
Hansel and Gretel remains a refreshing antidote to the traditional pantomime. Whilst it might not be as much fun as some of the other shows in town, its clean script, sensitive cast and fresh design make for a tasty evening nonetheless.