Redbrick Editor William Baxter reviews the engrossing and unique political drama, This House, at the REP.Written by William Baxter on 18th April 2018
Preview: Hansel and Gretel at the Hippodrome
Culture writer Ayesha Hashim previews Hansel and Gretel, a new 'twisted fairytale' production at the Hippodrome.
Preview by Ayesha Hashim
On the 26th of March, Redbrick Culture was kindly invited to an afternoon preview, where we sampled a few scenes from the METRO BOULOT-DODO production, before sitting down for an informal interview session with the cast and directors.
Hansel and Gretel brings to life the fairytale story of the siblings who encounter a witch in her candy house in the woods, framing it with a bemused storyteller and a musical mockingbird. Along with the characters themselves, they begin to tell their very own version of the tale, promising new surprises from this well-known story.
“'The selection of scenes we watched crackled with wit and comedic mayhem...'
The selection of scenes we watched crackled with wit and comedic mayhem, largely thanks to one of the production’s own inventions, the ‘flustered Storyteller’, as its narrator. Nicky Priest, in this role, both facilitates and anchors the breaking of the fourth wall, the rapport established with the audience, and the greater sense of autonomy afforded to each character. Interactions with the Storyteller pave the way for a healthy dose of fun and mischief, which its target demographic will surely appreciate.
The production is the product of an initiative that aims to serve as both training ground and performance platform for emerging performers with learning disabilities; the production features an integrated cast of performers with learning disabilities and non-disabled actors. Given the woeful underrepresentation of performers with disabilities in mainstream theatre, and lack of opportunity in conventional training facilities and programmes, this is both a progressive and much-needed initiative. The production seeks to break new ground in other ways too: with a female writing team, and the actor playing Gretel (Kimisha Lewis) keen to pour her feistiness into the character, the “bitter tears” of Gretel give way to a more extroverted, more contemporary characterization. The duck (Vicki Taylor), probably the most forgotten emblem of the original tale, surfaces as a comedic disruptor, much to the chagrin of Storyteller. Taylor says of the production 'I am used to not being accepted and here I am very accepted,' with this sentiment of acceptance and inclusion echoed by the cast and creative teams.
“'We want to the audience to think, ‘hang on, did that really happen?’, and to revisit the original afterwards'
The show will retain the attention of the parents accompanying their children in particular through hints of well-placed absurdism; “We want to the audience to think, ‘hang on, did that really happen?’, and to revisit the original afterwards”, says Esther Simpson, the production director. The development process has been shaped considerably by the actors’ input. “We improvised a lot during character development,” reflects Priest, and Charles Craggs (who plays Mockingbird) recalls working on the intricacies of ‘the chef song’ (another novel addition, one that is spoken about with much enthusiasm when it crops up multiple times in subsequent conversation) with the writers.
As far as artistic choices go, the relatively modest set featuring ‘stripped down’ props – the nightingale in the ‘lost in the woods’ scene for example, is crafted out of paper and gold tinsel, the witch’s house out of blocks that look like printed cardboard – seem informed by a need to stimulate children’s imaginations, and to retain greater stylistic connection with the original Grimm’s tale. Indeed the canvas-made, ‘cut-out’ costumes of Hansel and Gretel, are intended to give the impression, as Lewis says, “of the characters having literally stepped out of the pages of the book.” While this gives a sense of almost spacial closeness to the written fairytale, some very overt instances of modernization, such as the swapping of the gingerbread house for a candy one, helps to create an enjoyable aesthetic contrast. When asked about what he took to be the most interesting artistic or prop choice, Richard Hayhow, director of the Open Theater Company, draws attention to the assembling-dismantling component of the candy house, specifically the fact that it is completed by the cast, in front of the audience. “[All the lifting and moving] took some getting used to, in the beginning,” laughs Lewis. Whether intentional or not, this aspect of the show conveys a sense of flux, hinting at the innovative potential held by the narrative.
The digital projector is the production’s primary visual technological aid (one that will undoubtedly elicit awe from the younger demographic upon first being introduced). Used in the latter part of the show, it pleasingly expands an existing configuration of the set. The dynamic, abstract, lively musical contributions of Mockingbird (arguably one of the most delightful components of the production), who at times engages in humorous dichotomy with Storyteller, are partly technologically driven (a small sound system accompanies live instruments), but the music transcends the equipment it relies upon to integrate seamlessly into the narrative. “The less technology the better, really,” contributes Priest, and a couple of the other cast members nod in agreement. In the context of a production enhanced by the simplicity and suitability of its technological touches, it is easy to see how this conclusion has been reached.
“'the music transcends the equipment it relies upon to integrate seamlessly into the narrative...'
This production has come to fruition as a result, and against the backdrop, of years of honed relationships, and the successes of previous collaborations: Richard Hayhow notes that it has been twelve years since the companies involved (Open Theater, BecauseWeCanCanCan) started working with the Hippodrome, and cites that previous work, in conjunction with a combination of creative interests, with the writing crew of this production, played a pivotal role in his decision to work on the show. Later, similar sentiments are echoed by Simpson. Given the ambition and perceived longevity of the production, with the aim being to take the production forward as part of a national tour, the presence of this very stable backdrop, and presumably its ability to facilitate the reworking of certain aspects of the show, are assets that pave the way for the further 'Twisted Tales' to come.
The production opens on the 4rd of April at the Birmingham Hippodrome, with relaxed performances taking place on 6th and 7th of April, before touring to Midland's venues including the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry. More information can be found here, and further details from the rehearsal room can be found here.