If you’re going down to the woods today, you may be disappointed. Hansel and Gretel marks a welcome London return for revered Cornish theatre-makers Kneehigh after their high-flying success in 2008 with Brief Encounter. But this macabre mish-mash simply isn’t a patch on that genuinely moving multi-media experience, which saw the company take over a cinema in the Haymarket and thrillingly blur the boundaries between stage and screen.

Here, the mix of repetitive music, largely banal lyrics and occasional jigs serve little purpose in moving the story forward. And, despite famine, abandonment, torture and frantic overacting, it’s difficult to muster any sympathy for the “good and true” family of selfish parents and their sweet-greedy twins. There are some haunting elements – usually to do with puppetry and clever design – but it never gels into the magical whole that it should. A forced-up-on-your feet moment in which the audience is prompted to sing the Canadian national anthem is especially misjudged.

For those unfamiliar with Kneehigh, this may all sound overly harsh, but if, like me, you’re aware of what this wonderfully inventive outfit is capable of, you will know it’s so much more than this.

- Terri Paddock


NOTE: The following THREE-STAR review dates from December 2009 and this production's original run at the Bristol Old Vic.

No one could accuse Tom Morris, newly installed as artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic, of pandering to popular taste at Christmas time. He’s invited Kneehigh Theatre to invade the space with Hansel and Gretel, in which two children are abandoned by their parents and captured in the forest by a wicked witch who plans to eat them.

It’s the very opposite of the Christmas message, though the children and their parents are reunited at the end; and, when you think about it, the journey to Bethlehem was not much fun either. Kneehigh’s stage is a playground, and they’ve also decorated the foyers and under-stage areas with installations and forest knick-knacks.

On-stage, a sloping disc is fitted out with a large scaffolded structure: while Hansel (Carl Johnson) is a pigeon-toed bookworm, little Gretel (Joanna Holden) is an inventor, coming up with a chicken feed device (lots of grain scattered over the front stalls) and a mouse-flattening Heath Robinson contraption. Famine and hardship mean the children are left in the woods.

A slow first half ignites (literally) after the interval with Craig Johnson’s Hansel fattened for the fry-up in a birdcage, but the kids are saved by a rebellious Bolivian condor who sings freedom songs. The witch is given a tremendous, slatternly performance by writer Carl Grose, doubling with the father, just as Giles King’s jabbering condor doubles as pop-eyed mother in a headscarf.

The clever but repetitive songs are played and sung by the composers, Stu Barker and Ian Ross, who also turn up as friendly Tyrolean yodeling neighbours. Poverty means eating worms and sucking on chicken feathers, but the opposite of cake-eating over-indulgence in the candy cottage is no less disgusting: put that on your Christmas cards.

This Kneehigh show wavers half-way between the brilliance of Tristan & Yseult and the rib-digging awfulness of A Matter of Life and Death. There’s no momentum early on, and an air of vaguely offensive intellectual slumming. But Carl Grose is exceptional, and the ingenuity of Michael Vale’s design, the puppets and the catapults, make for a show that is astringently brutal and as hard to like as it is to ignore.

- Michael Coveney

Following Bristol, Hansel and Gretel vists Aberystwyth, Warwick, Salisbury, Southampton and Liverpool.