Published in the Guardian
Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
IN his Christmas shows for the Citz, playwright Alan McHugh has shown a particular fascination for the character the author Christopher Booker identifies as the "dark mother". The stepmother in his Cinderella verged on the psychotic, while the creature in his Beauty and the Beast was haunted by the witch who had transformed him.
Those plays tapped into the deep archetypal forces of the originals and were rich and troubling. In taking a similar approach to Hansel and Gretel, by contrast, McHugh throws the story off kilter.
Instead of the tale of two youngsters forced to make their own way in a dangerous world, he favours the story of a 1,000-year-old witch who will die unless she tricks the children's father into falling in love with her. Having turned their mother into a wolf, this magpie-like Vanya dominates the first half as she wheedles her way into their cottage. She is equally inescapable in the second half as the owner of the edible house.
Her overbearing presence casts an air of pessimism over Guy Hollands's production; what hope of freedom can poor Hansel and Gretel have? It's not helped by Jennifer Harraghy's decision to play Vanya as Victorian melodrama, all over-emphasis, endless cackling and heavy signalling of her every deceit. A psychologically credible approach would have been more frightening.
The lush arrangements of Claire McKenzie's live score add moments of reflection, but though her songs are well-sung, they only delay the opportunity to follow David Carlyle and Gemma McElhinney into the forest.
The show works best when focusing on these two bickering children, and the two actors generate much sympathy. Even at the end, however, Hansel and Gretel survive thanks not to their own resourcefulness but to their father's last-minute intervention. That is symptomatic of a play that is too concerned with the grownups.
© Mark Fisher, 2011 (pic: Richard Campbell)
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