Review - Hansel and Gretel at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre
Hansel and Gretel is always a tricky one to place for an audience. Whilst generally considered a children’s fairytale, this originally gruesome tale of cruelty and parental neglect isn’t in any way fluffy.
The opera, originally devised in German by Adelheid Wette and Engelbert Humperdinck, softens it somewhat by revisiting some of the more unforgiving elements, and paired with Peter McKintosh’s colourful set at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, this English adaptation has a broader appeal. Nevertheless, director Timothy Sheader retains the dark nuances that make this story so rich and unsettling.
We meet impoverished siblings Hansel and Gretel in their rickety house in the woods, trying to entertain each other to distract from terrible hunger. When their mother comes home from work to find them making mischief, she sends them into the woods to collect strawberries for supper. But darkness settles, and the siblings find themselves lost and hungry in the haunted wood.
The wood is creatively conceived from broomsticks planted into the stage as trees, and the deconstructed shell of Hansel and Gretel’s house. This transformation takes place before the audience’s eyes with the help of the chorus, and with minimal disruption to the production’s flow. The versatility of the rotating stage allows for five different scenes to appear before the audience, all of which bleed softly into the natural enchantment of the surrounding Regent’s Park trees. The light-up gingerbread house in particular is as one would hope: bright, sickly sweet and (partly) edible!
The plot takes some time to get going and continues to trundle until mid-way through Act Three when the children, stumbling across the gingerbread house in the woods, are caught eating it by the manipulative, child-eating Witch (Alasdair Elliott). Though dressed à la Widow Twankey, the Witch is not so comic. Elliott is quite terrifying, prancing around the stage in a polka-dot dress, his wig discarded, and looking positively deranged. It works; an unsettling dance between hilarity and horror.
Hansel (Rachel Kelly) and Gretel (Susanna Hurrell) carry the production with impressive energy and vocal dexterity. Neither misses a note throughout an hour and a half of near-constant singing. But so mature are their voices that it is difficult to see the children of the story. Duncan Rock gives a good performance as the Father, but it is Rosie Aldridge that commands the stage as the Mother, a true matriarch and powerhouse of emotion.
The opera incorporates some dance and physical theatre, but not so much as to make it as visually compelling as it is musically accomplished, Ben Glassberg’s orchestra sending beautiful trills rippling through the evening. The ensemble scenes feel heavily workshopped, the Gingerbread Chorus miming with expression but not much fluidity (as adorable as they are!).
This is a charmingly staged, double-cast production of the traditional opera with a few surprises, and if you’re lucky enough to choose a clear, warm evening then the natural beauty of Regent’s Park will provide the magic to bring this fairytale to life.
Photo credit Johan Persson