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A CurtainUp London Review
Hansel and Gretel

"When she's tender, nicely toasted/Your daughter is roasted."
— Father warning of the dangers of the Haunted Wood
Hansel and Gretel
The Cast in Hansel and Gretel
(Photo: Johan Persson)
In a combined production, the Artistic Director of the Open Air Timothy Sheader directs Engelbert Humperdinck's folk opera Hansel and Gretel for the English National Opera. Peter McKintosh's designs are delightful, enhanced of course by the woodland setting of Regent's Park.

This open air setting has the benefit of the ENO Orchestra albeit in a reduced score by Derek J Clarke. I found I knew little of the music of this opera which started as four songs for children written by the composer's sister Adelheid Wette. Its metamorphosis into a full opera reminds me of the inception of Lloyd Webber's Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat which started as a 40 minute entertainment for schools to perform. What I did know was the children's song, here in the Pountney translation and sung by Gretel: "With your foot you tap tap tap/ With your hands go clap clap clap/ One foot in, one foot out/ Bow your head and turn about." When they sing it, Hansel plays air guitar and Gretel dances as if on Top of the Pops.

The programme explains that Humperdinck's friend Richard Strauss encouraged him to develop Hansel and Gretel as a folk opera relying on German folk music roots rather than the more dramatic, classically soaring music of Richard Wagner.

The overture is played to a succession of witches with tall besom brooms who tantalisingly lay out bags of sweeties to attract children to the Witch's house in the forest which we do not yet see. Instead we go to Hansel and Gretel (Heather Lowe and Elizabeth Karani)'s wretched hovel where they are both hungry but break the jug, and spill the milk, given by a neighbour, which was to be used to make rice pudding.

I found it difficult to break disbelief and see these two mature women as children but opera has often been better listened to with one's eyes shut, but in this case the singing voices are also deeper and more sonorous than those of children.

David Pountney's translation is very accessible with the kind of rhyming language that children adore. The role of the mother (Gweneth Ann Rand) in the various versions of Hansel and Gretel is sometimes abusive, she can be a stepmother and akin to the Witch. Here she tells the children off for shirking when they should be working. In some versions the children are banished to the woods but here they are sent off to gather strawberries for supper.

The father (Ben McAteer) comes home drunk with specific and explicit sexual demands having sold many brushes with the townsfolk cleaning up for a special occasion. In some versions, a woodcutter father makes the brooms for the witches.

The children get lost in the woods formed of trees of upturned broomsticks and are put to sleep by the Sandman (Gillian Keith) and in their dreams we have a visual coup de theatre. White suited attendants with blonde wigs looking like Nazi Youth shop mannequins and carrying white suitcases, emblazoned with gold wings, dance in a scene that could have come out of The Book of Mormon. They stand arms folded behind their backs like flight attendants and go through the flight safety protocol mime and give the children an airline meal.

The interval allows the Witch's candy house to be constructed surrounded by tall gingerbread men. With pink and yellow marzipan walls studded with jelly tots and a roof of icing and sweeties, it lights up enticingly. The children are awakened by the Dew Fairy (He Fu) and her entourage in a ballet.

As Hansel chews cake, we hear the witch (John Findon), "Greedy little mousey, Who's nibbling at my housey?". The Witch is not the traditional black suited, striped stockings and broomstick but a Diana Dors type figure, a buxom blonde, high red heels and called Rosie Lickspittle. As she whips off the wig and removes her falsies we see they are iced cherry buns!

The children triumph as Gretel saves Hansel from the oven which explodes as the Witch is baked into a giant gingerbread man so we can all go home feeling happy at the triumph of good over evil. The many children turned into gingerbread men are restored to life. This fresh production will enter the ENO's repertoire with David Pountney's witty libretto, Timothy Sheader's memorable direction and Peter McKintosh's eye catching design.

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Hansel and Gretel
Music by Engelbert Humperdinck
Libretto by Adelheid Wette
English translation by David Pountney
Directed by Timothy Sheader
Starring: Heather Lowe, Elizabeth Karami, Gweneth Ann Rand, Ben McAteer, John Findon, Gillian Keith and He Wu
With: Jessie Angell, Hannah Brown, Hayley Diamond, Tom Dickerson, Alfie Doohan, Emily Hammond, Hope Jones, Jamie Foster, Patrick Lewin, Adam Lines, Lucy Parsons, Sian Smith, Manmeet Sidhu, Ashley Woodhead
Design: Peter McKintosh
Conductor: Ben Glassberg
Movement Director: Lizzi Gee
Sound Designer: Nick Lidster for Autograph
Lighting Design: Oliver Fenwick
Composer: Stephen Warbeck
Running time: Two hours 10 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 0333 400 3561
Booking to 22nd June 2019
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 18th June 2019 evening performance at The Open Air, Regent's Park, Inner Circle London N1 4NU (Tube: Baker Street)
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