Posts tagged ‘dominic maxwell’

3 February, 2010

My Stories, Your Emails

Barbican, 2 – 13 February 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Ursula Martinez is an enigma and so is her new solo show, My Stories, Your Emails. An original member of La Clique, Martinez exists in the borderlands between stand-up comedy, burlesque dance, stage magic and performance art. Similarly, My Stories, Your Emails is a lecture, a stand-up act, a play, a confession and an autobiography while simultaneously being none of these things.

It also appears simultaneously to be a constructive, creative response to a potentially upsetting situation and a petty, misdirected act of vengeance.

As the title suggests, it’s a show of two halves. The first involves Martinez reading (mostly) humorous autobiographical anecdotes from a lectern. Her deadpan delivery is disconcertingly reminiscent of Jimmy Carr, though Martinez excels at getting laughs by leaving stories hanging, instead of by comic over-explanation.

The stories serve as a brief introduction to Martinez’s life, revealing aspects of her upbringing and career, details about her family and so on, without sketching anything like a complete picture of her as a person.

The second half concerns a similarly incomplete picture – a video of her magic/striptease act Hanky Panky, which was released onto the internet without her permission – and some of the astonishing conclusions people the world over drew about her as a result. It’s a pageant showcasing some prime examples of that uniquely 21st century prose genre, the speculative online solicitation, in which the objective is to coat every syllable in steaming sexual subtext, but convince the receiving party that you are not just another hopeless case begging for sex.

There’s a surprising variety of pretexts, from those who idolise Martinez as a campaigner for Nudism, to those who want to book her act, through those seeking friendship to those barefacedly requesting sex. What they have in common is that they all think they know, understand or have some kind of claim over Martinez just because they’ve watched a video of her stripping and making a silk handkerchief disappear.

The concept of this segment is a problematic one. A piece of Martinez’s work not intended for mass online consumption ended up online; she responds to this by taking fanmail (complete with full names, photos and even some telephone numbers) presumably meant for her eyes only and performing it publicly. The majority of the men (and they are all men) don’t come out of it especially well. On paper it feels like an eye for an eye.

But she performs the emails without commentary: the men are allowed to present themselves in their own words (though she provides each with an appropriate accent). It also becomes clear from occasional instances of two-way correspondence that their permission has been sought and granted to incorporate their words and pictures into the show.

To presume to draw a definitive conclusion regarding the motivation and ethics behind My Stories, Your Emails would be to make the same mistake as the men. Best just to present the facts and let Ursula Martinez remain an enigma.

Written by Ursula Martinez

Crew includes Mark Whitelaw (director)

Cast includes Ursula Martinez

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22 January, 2010

Decade

Theatre 503, 19 – 23 January 2010

Reviewed for The Collective Review

What do you remember about the Noughties? (Yes, it turns out that is what we’re calling them.) Theatre503 asked that question to ten playwrights – five established, five as-yet unproduced – and the result is Decade, a collection of ten ten-minute plays, each one representing a single year. So what do the Decade writers remember about the Noughties?

First and foremost, they remember global catastrophes. Summing up a whole year in ten minutes of drama is a tall order, of course, so most of the ten focus on one or two iconic events – and it seems most of the iconic events of the Noughties were disasters. The Millennium Bug (okay – only a potential disaster), 9/11, the war in Iraq, the Christmas tsunami of 2004, Guantanamo Bay and the election of BNP MEPs all feature.

This could be because, as we’re often told, Conflict Is The Essence Of Drama. Alternatively, this could be how we’re fated to remember the last decade: as one disaster after another.

It was also a decade dominated by the USA, and American accents permeate Decade. Behind his vacant stare, President George Dubya Bush is dancing inside, in Beth Steel’s surreal 2001. Nimer Rashed personifies the post-9/11 USA as a seductive, manipulative but brutally wronged neighbour. In Richard Marsh’s 2007, two Guantanamo guards find themselves in thrall to an inmate’s superior knowledge of the final Harry Potter book.

Surprisingly, despite suspicion of Muslims and Middle Eastern peoples dictating many powerful countries’ foreign policy, and despite the landmark election of the USA’s first black President, race is hardly touched upon. Marsh’s inmate Khaliq (Sartaj Garewal) comments briefly on the consequences of assuming certain people are all the same, but it’s left to Rex Obano to tackle race single-handedly in 2009 – a task he accomplishes defiantly, though not without the odd flop in onstage energy.

The quality of the writing is consistently high enough that, without the programme, it’s difficult to distinguish the seasoned pros from the unknowns. Newcomer Nimer Rashed struggles to find an original angle on 9/11, but still outdoes Market Boy writer David Eldridge’s limp offering (though Eldridge’s scene isn’t helped by weak, overly static direction from Gene David Kirk). Amy Rosenthal and April de Angelis both deliver strong, pacey, dialogue-driven contributions, but so too does the unproduced Richard Marsh. Beth Steel delivers more meaning via her surrealism than Phil Porter’s weird, overwrought piece.

The finished product – cemented together with period pop music and news headlines – is a dreamlike reassemblage of half-faded memories. Not a complete picture of the decade by any means, but a more potent epitaph by far than the kind of bland, Jimmy-Carr-hosted nostalgia thrown together for TV.

Written by April de Angelis, David Eldridge, Fraser Grace, Richard Marsh, Rex Obano, Phil Porter, Lou Ramsden, Nimer Rashed, Amy Rosenthal and Beth Steel

Crew includes Jessica Beck, Anthony Biggs, Gemma Farlie, Antonio Ferrara, Steve Harper, Gene David Kirk, Tim Roseman and Charlotte Westenra (directors)

Cast includes Victoria Bavister, Phil Brodie, Jamie de Courcey, Sartaj Garewal, Vincent Jerome, Jamal Noland and Henry Steele

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14 December, 2009

The Stefan Golaszewski Plays

Bush Theatre, 2 December 2009 – 9 January 2010

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog and cross-posted to The Collective Review

Two one-act plays back to back don’t usually make a successful two-act play. Right? Which suggests it’s probably no coincidence that Stefan Golaszewski Speaks About A Girl He Once Loved and Stefan Golaszewski Is A Widower work so well as a double bill; it seems likely they were always meant to be performed together.

It was clear from the plays’ debuts, a year apart at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, that they were stylistically and thematically of a piece. Each is a monologue in which Golaszewski relates romantic episodes from ‘his’ life, or a fictionalised version of it (in Widower he imagines himself in the year 2056, following marriage and a moderately successful TV career), aided by some simple props and a gift for writing fresh, cliché-free imagery.

What wasn’t immediately obvious back then was how neatly the two would bolt together for their London transfer. At around an hour each they were bite-sized enough for the choice-rich, time-poor Festival theatregoer, but the double bill is substantial enough to be worth a London audience’s while. More importantly, the emotional and thematic trajectories of Golaszewski as a character and a playwright are revealed and reinforced by the juxtaposition; images, foibles and techniques introduced in About A Girl pay off with interest when revisited in Widower.

Little gimmicks used in About A Girl simply to create sight gags give rise instead to pathos when they recur in the altered context of Widower. Golaszewski’s tendency to idolise women is the quirky fulcrum of About A Girl, but Widower acknowledges the disadvantages of such an attitude when applied to a more adult kind of relationship; the wide-eyed, innocent awe of female beauty that characterises About A Girl is only briefly retrodden in Widower before tragedy abruptly erases it in favour of a whole new range of grown-up emotions like bitterness, desperation and regret.

Individually the plays are snapshots of a man at two different stages of emotional maturity. Combined, they sketch a more complete portrait of a man learning the hard way that the reality of long-term commitment can never be as idealistically romantic as rose-tinted recollections of unrealised adolescent love. Underscoring it all are the insecurities of a young playwright coming uneasily to terms with his own premonitions of future emotional disillusionment and bodily deterioration. The whole is unquestionably greater than the sum of its parts – and given all the stars, awards and praise each play received individually, marrying them is sure to result in a critical mass of acclaim.

Written by Stefan Golaszewski

Crew includes Phillip Breen (director/designer)

Cast includes Stefan Golaszewski

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4 December, 2009

Jiggery Pokery: A Homage to Charles Hawtrey

Amanda Lawrence in Jiggery Pokery

Amanda Lawrence in Jiggery Pokery. Image by Sadie Lee

Battersea Arts Centre, 1 – 19 December 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

My opinion might not count for much in this situation, since my knowledge of Charles Hawtrey is limited to an afternoon spent watching videos of him on YouTube, but I think it’s safe to say that in this one-woman show, Amanda Lawrence’s revivification of the troubled Carry On actor, is spot on (though her Sidney James could use work).

There’s already a remarkable physical resemblance on which to found this living portrait. With her hair untidily pinned back and the addition of a severe pair of wire-rimmed glasses, the likeness is complete. Add to that the morosely downturned edges of the mouth, the gawky physicality, the distinctively pneumatic method of smoking a cigarette, and a captivating and lifelike presence is born.

Not that Lawrence is limited to playing Hawtrey (though this imitation is, as it should be, the show’s crowning glory). The programme lists a cast of nearly sixty, every one played by Lawrence in under 90 minutes; on one occasion she plays all three participants in a rapid-fire conversation, frantically tying, untying and re-tying the bandanna that denotes the headmistress of Hawtrey’s schooldays.

A single prop or costume item, a voice and a subtle alteration to Lawrence’s physicality are all that’s required to demarcate the majority of the roles. The speed of her transitions from role to role are one major source of the show’s humour, the other being material from Hawtrey’s many cinematic outings, including his early Will Hay pictures and several of the Carry On films.

In fact, the borrowed Carry On dialogue serves its best dramatic purpose when inserted incongruously into particularly unamusing episodes from Hawtrey’s private life, including the descent of his mother into dementia and his own unglamorous death. Re-enacting bawdy lines from Carry On Doctor as he writhes in agony in a hospital bed reflects both his love-hate relationship with the films that made him famous and the tragicomic duality of his life as a whole: a much-loved comic gem in public, but a bitter, unpopular drunk in private.

Jiggery Pokery is a success on both a theatrical and an emotional level. It’s a reminder of just how much can be achieved onstage through the craft of a single talented performer, but also an homage to a complicated individual that manages to be neither sentimental nor judgmental.

Written by Paul Hunter and Amanda Lawrence

Crew includes Paul Hunter (director), Billy Hiscoke (stage manager), Cathy Wren (designer) and Jules Maxwell (composer)

Cast includes Amanda Lawrence (Charles Hawtrey, amongst others)

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9 November, 2009

The Joy of Politics

Warehouse Theatre, Croydon, 6 – 22 November 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Gordon Brown’s Prime Ministerial career is dead in the water. You can tell because a) political satirists like Andrew Jones and Ciaran Murtagh, collectively known as The Black Sheep, think gags about Mr Brown’s slim chances of re-election guarantee laughs, and because b) they’re right.

The Prime Minister isn’t the only easy target to come under fire in The Black Sheep’s satirical sketch show The Joy of Politics. Charles Kennedy’s alcoholism and MPs’ expenses, for example, are savaged in predictable but thankfully brisk and admittedly crowd-pleasing fashion. As satirists Jones and Murtagh can’t afford not to mention the expenses scandal, but their material isn’t sufficiently different from other, higher profile acts’ to stand out.

It’s when disassembling and inspecting the day-to-day workings of Westminster, by imagining William Wilberforce’s early years as an ill-informed junior minister (Murtagh), that the pair come into their own. Explanations of the parliamentary whipping system (with riding crops) and how to deal with a direct question from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight (a lengthy sketch full of increasingly evasive answers to the simple question, “Would you like a Kit Kat Chunky?”) are amongst the strongest items in the two-hour show.

One or two early sketches are allowed to continue one or two lines beyond the natural punchline and fizzle as a result; and the musical numbers that pepper the schedule vary wildly in quality. Hits include Churchill (Jones) in spangly gold parachute pants advising Herr Hitler “You can’t touch this”, but the dampest squib of the evening is Murtagh singing Abba’s “I Have a Dream” – supposedly in character as Martin Luther King Jr but looking more like a Sinatra impersonator in a pinstriped suit and trilby. The tenuous connection that both Dr King and Abba used the line “I Have a Dream” isn’t nearly enough to sustain laughter while Murtagh warbles out practically the entire song.

But a couple of flat minutes aren’t enough to derail a show that deftly balances satire and highbrow wit with pure silliness and knob gags (referred to as such by the self-aware duo). Not to mention the fact that Andrew Jones’ Nick Griffin impersonation alone is worth the entry price.

Written by Andrew Jones, Cal McCrystal and Ciaran Murtagh

Crew includes Cal McCrystal (director) and Sakina Karimjee (set designer)

Cast includes Andrew Jones and Ciaran Murtagh

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2 October, 2009

The Author

Royal Court Theatre, 23 Sept – 24 October 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

Tim Crouch ’s The Author is a bitter little pill, too heavily sugared and something of a kill or cure.

Up until the final 15 minutes it’s a curiosity, an experiment for experimentation’s sake. We, the audience, are both stage and set dressing. Adrian, the archetypal gushing theatre enthusiast, speaks up from among our ranks, encouraging conversation, an exchange of views. Other performers, including Crouch himself, playing himself, reveal themselves in our midst one by one. Between them they recount a story surrounding a fictional production staged by Crouch.

Except they aren’t just relating their experiences of this notional production: an in-yer-face affair crammed with violence and abuse that has caused audience members both to walk and to pass out. They’re apologising for their part in it. Apologising to us, the audience, because theatre makers are beholden to their audiences. They need us, the consumers of their art, to understand their intentions and to forgive them.

And until those final 15 minutes that’s all The Author is: an acknowledgement of the absolute power the audience wields, seasoned with interrogations of the audience’s ingrained reluctance to exercise that power, to intervene in events onstage, however reprehensible they find them. It’s all necessary to prime us for what comes next, but it takes its sweet time doing so, and in the meantime it all feels a bit insular, a bit inconsequential, even a bit masturbatory: the mores of the theatre being discussed, by theatre makers, through the medium of theatre, using a fictional piece of theatre as an allegory, to theatregoers.

Then comes the turnaround, and in those final 15 minutes The Author is revealed for what it has really been all along: a daring act of self-flagellation by Crouch on behalf of provocative art and controversial artists. Personally present, without the ablative armour of a fictional character, and having questioned for over an hour why audiences choose not to act against onstage villainy, the playwright reveals himself as the worst kind of villain, or at least the most easily demonised. There’s nothing insular or inconsequential about his closing monologue, delivered to a pitch-dark auditorium – and yes, people sitting close to him do plead with him to stop, though not forcefully enough for him actually to do so.

The medicinal value of this bitter little pill remains to be seen. If next month The Stage reports mass walk-outs and stage invasions at Sarah Kane revivals, we’ll know it had some effect; but I suspect the thick sugary coating may well interfere with the active ingredients, and a few patients will undoubtedly refuse to swallow the pill at all.

Written by Tim Crouch

Crew includes Karl James and a smith (directors), Matt Drury (lighting designer) and Ben & Max Ringham (music & sound designers)

Cast includes Tim Crouch, Adrian Howells, Vic Llewellyn and Esther Smith (themselves)

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24 March, 2009

The Overcoat

Lyric Hammersmith, 23 March – 11 April 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Your rational mind may blow a fuse trying to decode a plot from Gecko’s reimagining of Gogol’s short story, The Overcoat. So disengage rationality altogether and appreciate the play’s highly developed aesthetic and broad, emotional storytelling instead.

Gecko actively discourage intellectual engagement with the plot. Each of the seven ensemble performers speaks a different language for the duration of the performance, forcing the focus onto action rather than dialogue (unless you’re prodigiously multilingual).

The company’s onstage world is a gloomy one. Dimly downlit in stark whites and greys through copious stage fog, government clerk Akakki (Amit Lahav) and his colleagues work hunched over tiny desks in isolated pools of light. The furniture is hard iron, the walls are streaked with grime and the ensemble’s faces are shaded in stylised black and white.

The only colour in Akakki’s monochrome world is the rich brown of his dream overcoat, hanging out of reach as a target to strive for. Akakki believes replacing his battered old overcoat with this fantasy version will open the door to success in his career and love life. This is about the only plot point the company communicates with any clarity.

The majority of the company’s effort goes into communicating emotions. Gecko’s development and rehearsal process – one which is becoming increasingly popular with new companies – involves every aspect of the production throughout, creating a whole product, rather than a collection of interlocking pieces to be constructed later.

The onstage result is that Akakki’s feelings infuse everything, from the lighting to composer Dave Price’s Romany-flavoured musical accompaniment to the physicality of the ensemble, simultaneously. However obscure the plot may have become, this kind of emotional holism ensures that it’s clear throughout what we’re meant to be feeling, and makes it difficult not to be swept along with Akakki’s exaggerated highs and lows.

It’s unfortunate, when the emotional trajectory is the only part of the production that comes across with any clarity, that it zigzags back and forth so much without ever really progressing.

Akakki fantasises as a way to escape his dreary workaday life. His fantasies are lit more warmly, but just as dimly, so it’s sometimes difficult to follow what is real and what make-believe.

This is part of the play’s barmy appeal – is anything real? does anyone know what’s happening? – but since Akakki fantasises mostly about how deliriously happy the overcoat will make him, the majority of this short production turns into a rinse-and-repeat cycle of magnified (and therefore simplified) joy and despair that never seems to lead anywhere.

The play is full of the imagery of advancement. The office boss resides on a high platform, and when one of Akakki’s colleagues is promoted, his desk is literally cranked up higher to meet him. Akakki climbs the walls to reach his goal, and is pushed off to dangle unglamorously by his crotch when he’s found wanting.

People who enjoy theatre principally for the stories will find Gecko’s Overcoat frustrating. But its rejection of traditional plot structures in favour of visual metaphor and emotional bombast is what makes it consummately theatrical: in any other medium it would gutter and die, but on the stage it shines.

Adapted from a work by Nikolai Gogol

Crew includes Amit Lahav (director), Ti Green (designer), James Farncombe (lighting designer), Dave Price (composer) and Dan Steele (sound designer)

Cast includes Natalie Ayton, Amit Lahav, Robert Luckay, Dave Price, François Testory, Sirena Tocco and Tom Wu

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24 January, 2009

Love in (3) Parts

Southwark Playhouse, 12 – 31 January 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Southwark Playhouse’s Love in (3) Parts follows Paul (Rich W. Burton) and Claire (Sally Kent), a middle-class white couple, as their relationship progresses from awkward first date through all the surprises, arguments and reconciliations that follow.

So what is there to differentiate it from the morass of similar plays telling similar stories?

First, there’s the inclusion of musician James Dey, who provides incidental and background music on guitar, keyboard and glockenspiel, as well as singing. Like the play as a whole, Dey’s music is langorously, almost sleepily paced, especially for the first forty or so minutes of the seventy-minute production.

The whole affair is very relaxed and unhurried; there’s very little tension, either in the production or the relationship it portrays.

Dey’s instruments are cleverly built into various bits of Kath Singh’s set, a contemporary black and white Everyflat. Dey himself ambles about the stage doing his own thing, for the most part invisible to the couple. Whether he has any relevance to the plot, or is simply there to add an extra musical dimension to the production, isn’t made explicit until very late in the play.

This is symptomatic of the play’s general tendency to spend too long setting things up and leave itself too little time to fully exploit the situations they bring about.

The other major example of this problem, and by coincidence the play’s other major distinguishing point, is Paul’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). He can’t leave the flat without clicking the lamp on and off three times; he can’t relax unless his pencils are lined up parallel on top of the television; and when he arrives home he has to fold his coat and scarf just so, and count out his loose change onto the sideboard.

Mostly this issue is used to demonstrate the play’s central axiom, tabled by Paul during first date dinner: that at first you love a person’s quirks, then they drive you mad, and eventually, when they’re gone, you miss them.

But for too long we linger on the threshold between stages one and two, in which Claire finds Paul’s rituals merely interesting.

It’s a shame, because when they finally do drive her mad we’re treated to the strongest scene in the whole play, in which Claire is driven to deliver a wholly unfair ultimatum – the “habits” or her – and enact it with unexpected cruelty.

It’s the one time either character does anything at all unexpected. Paul’s OCD notwithstanding, both are deliberately written as typical Everypeople. Neither one ever seems to strive for anything; they drift from one situation to the next as languidly as Dey’s music, without actively embracing or resisting a single one.

There are plenty of little ideas and devices worthy of some praise: from the satisfying eventual resolution of Dey’s ghostly presence, to the eerie moonlit ambience provided by the snowing television screen, to the well-observed and believable stumbles and false starts that break up the awkward, meaningless first date dialogue. Both performances, too, are surefooted, and thoroughly plumb what depths the characters do possess.

But ultimately the play needs more than little ideas in order to say anything about love that hasn’t already been said the same way a thousand times. The best thing to say about it is it’s nice. Not life-changing, but not bad either; just nice.

Written by John Shaw

Crew includes Dan Mallaghan (director), Kath Singh (designer) and James Dey (musician)

Cast includes Rich W. Burton (Paul) and Sally Kent (Claire)

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4 December, 2008

Hansel and Gretel

Barbican, 1 December 2008 – 4 January 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

How do you get a hundred hyperactive schoolchildren to sit still and shut up through seventy minutes of theatre? Trick question: it’s impossible. Catherine Wheels Theatre Company accept that a young audience is going to fidget, so they’ve built it into their show.

The show in question is a promenade production of classic Grimm’s fairy tale Hansel and Gretel at the Barbican over Christmas. Promenade may well be the ideal format for children’s theatre. It keeps the audience moving, eliminating the fidgeting problem, and provides a constantly changing spectacle to keep them entertained.

The school parties certainly never seem bored or restless as friendly ushers guide them from Hansel and Gretel’s woodland bungalow, through a spooky and increasingly macabre forest to the gingerbread house.

Of course everyone knows the welcoming appearance of the house is a deception, but it’s still easy to empathise with Hansel and Gretel’s clueless relief after fifteen minutes spent wandering through designer Karen Tennent’s forest.

The trees are shadowy, insubstantial outlines – suggested by stretched tubes of gauze, lit from within by coldly twinkling fairy lights and uncomfortably reminiscent of enormous cobwebs.

As a warped version of The Teddy Bears’ Picnic lures the children onwards, the imagery becomes increasingly unsettling, at least for the adults in the audience. The bones piled in the corners aren’t nearly as disturbing as tableaux of children’s dolls – babies and Barbies – stripped, limbs contorted, and hung in chains from the ceiling.

Traditional Grimm’s horror is much more fashionable right now than supposedly child-friendly versions of their tales – and the children don’t seem fazed by it, swaggering through the groves and proudly assuring one another they aren’t scared at all.

Once we escape the forest into the apparent safety of the gingerbread house we find the production’s other great asset: the witch.

The usual witch was ill when I saw the production, and had been replaced by the Catherine Wheels’ artistic director Gill Robertson. Once she recovers, poor Helena Lymbery (and Cassie Friend, with whom she alternates the part) needs to deliver something truly stunning, or she runs the risk of being upstaged by a (presumably) last minute stand-in.

The production makes extensive use of physical clowning, to tell the story in a way that’s simple to understand, to explain motivation and intent, and to lighten the tone.

The same techniques make Robertson’s witch a feral creature of the forest. Dressed in dark leaves, she moves in an ape-like half crouch and beds down in a pile of furs like a sleepy cat. Her speech is a mixture of childlike mewling and bellowed, guttural commands.

The production focuses on Hansel and Gretel’s responsibility for one another in the absence of a reliable parent. Hansel, the eldest and the male sibling, protects his sister from the nasties lurking in the forest; once he’s caught and caged, it falls to Gretel to return the favour.

It’s made clear just how quickly she has to mature in this difficult situation. She’s forced to deal with a physically and vocally intimidating witch and to cook the very food that will fatten her brother for the kill, all while keeping him from falling into despair.

Yet despite all that pressure it’s her ingenuity that eventually saves them both. It’s not only the horror that’s grown-up; the moral lesson inherent to the fairy tale is also dealt with in a grown-up way. Precisely because it doesn’t treat its audience like children, Hansel and Gretel may be the perfect children’s show.

Written by Catherine Wheels Theatre Company

Crew includes Gill Robertson (artistic director) and Karen Tennent (designer)

Cast includes Susan Harrison (Gretel), Tommy Mullins (Hansel) and Gill Robertson (the Witch – replacing Helena Lymbery due to illness)

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