REVIEW: Hansel and Gretel and the Witch Baba Yaga (St Paul’s Church) ★★★★

Everyone loves fairytales. There’s the right amount of tension, angst and moral, but good tends to triumph over evil. And if we ignore Disney’s sugarcoated happy endings, this usually involves a gruesome end for the so-called baddie. Which children and adults secretly enjoy. Did anyone feel sympathy for Cinderella’s sisters when their eyes were pecked out? Or pity the servant in The Goose Girl when she is dragged through the town in a barrel full of nails?

Yet perhaps the main attraction with fairytales is the fact that someone from a fairly normal background can become a hero, at least once they have proven themselves.

We all know the story of Hansel and Gretel – two small children abandoned in the woods by their parents are deceived by a witch and escape only by burning her alive. Poor witch… yet Iris Theatre choose not to end the story here. Instead they merge several stories together to create a new mystical tale.

The scene is set in a town, in a land far away… an inquisition is underway where women are feared, neighbours betray one another and children are dying from a spreading Stain. Somehow Gretel (Rosie Abraham) survives, but remains marked and feared by all. Hansel (Deshaye Gayle) is handsome, but would sell his soul for a hot meal. When the children are left alone in the forest, they must both use their wits to avoid capture by one of the three Baba Yagas that lurk in the trees.

What can I say? I loved it.

The story is a bit slow to start as the scene is set, but then the adventure really begins, with beautiful puppets, clever costumes and Amber Scarlett‘s truly magical sets – the gingerbread house is every child’s dream. As we follow the characters around the grounds of St Paul’s, the twists and turns keep us guessing and Daniel Winder‘s script manages to evoke both laughter and emotion. It’s even a little bit scary in places. The death song Abraham sings in the Forever is a haunting, beautiful melody and the scene with the children’s father (Nick Howard-Brown) is surprisingly moving.

The actors are all excellent, from the fantastic characterisations from Josie Brightwell and Will Kelly as the Baba Yagas, to the stoic Vasilisa (Jennifer Clement). Abraham is particularly good as Gretel, with a childish determination that shows wisdom beyond her years.

It’s very almost perfect. But, it was let down by an unnecessary fart scene which seemed very out of place in such a magical production. However, Hansel and Gretel and the Witch Baba Yaga is still the best Iris Theatre production so far.

Reviewed by Michaela Clement-Hayes
Photo: Nick Rutter