Perusing blogs on theatre and puppetry last week, I stumbled across this blog post about the beautiful puppets under construction for the world premier of Hansel and Gretel at the 2018 Cheltenham Music Festival. It was sheer coincidence that the event was so close to home but a sure sign that I ought to book a ticket and I wasn’t disappointed.
The pop-up event at the intimate Parabola Arts Centre (the performance venue attached to the esteemed Cheltenham Ladies College) was close to full, even on an incredibly hot summer’s evening. And the attraction hosted a rather more mature and respectful audience than the England match celebrations that echoed outside the building’s parameter.
Producer, Kate Romano’s new UK tour is a performance of layers, harmonising the talents across all areas of the arts: Clive Hicks-Jenkins, author of Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ Artlog, provided the visual direction, inspired by Simon Armitage’s re-write of the Classic fairytale. Hicks-Jenkins marries stunningly precise and delicate use of table-top puppets in front of a screen that projected a close up live-filming of the puppetry enhanced by paper-cut graphic design sequences. A true multi-media spectacle.
Armitage’s poetry is delivered by narrator and opera singer, Adey Grummet, who arrives on stage with a magical book that lights-up upon opening and battles for attention with the cheeky puppet-children, putting a clear stamp of style on the production as a whole. This, she exudes, is not a children’s tale for the weak or faint of heart.
The spoken word is enhanced by the evocative strains of the five piece chamber orchestra. The compositional work of Matthew Kaner combines the use of clarinets, a horn, a cello and cor anglais with percussion from toy pianos which chime in with the patter of unsettling nursery rhymes and Grummet’s haunting operatic lilt.
The story is as grimly dark as the original. The telling is somewhat clunky, which renders it fittingly uneasy to listen to and, at times, naughty, intended to shock. But where the quirky and suggestive music ties the piece together, it is the skilled and emotive puppeteering that steals our hearts.
Jan Zalud’s creations (designed and commissioned by Hicks-Jenkins) are breathed into life by the masters of miniature subtlety, Diana Ford and Lizzie Wort. Ford and Wort lead us to be enchanted by the petty rivalry of the bickering siblings vying for the top bunk of the bed. The endearing poignance of the tender love that evolves between Hansel and Gretel results from the helpless plight of two vulnerable children lost in the woods but it is the timing and precision of Ford and Wort that guides us there. A touch, a look, even in miniature, speaks volumes.
The tour, ‘suitable for adults, teenagers and adventurous children over ten’, demands a level of patience from the observer. Parents should be under no illusion that this is a fun and engaging theatrical performance. It is a cultural demonstration of high level skill that requires both acceptance and appreciation of the arts so should be booked with this in mind.
Hansel and Gretel tours the UK until November 4th. Do follow the blog links above to see fabulous pictures of the design process.