REVIEW: Dark, dangerous and awesome fairytale fare in Warwick with Gretel

Zoe Bull as Stepmother in Gretel. Picture: David Fawberg Photography
Zoe Bull as Stepmother in Gretel. Picture: David Fawberg Photography

Nick Le Mesurier reviews Gretel, presented by Playbox Theatre at the Dream Factory, Warwick

Fairy stories are marvellous and mysterious things, and when you strip away the Victorian sanctimony, they’re dangerous, too.

Gretel, written, directed and choreographed by Playbox Theatre’s Toby and Emily Quash, is a different kind of Christmas show. Based on the story of Hansel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm, it exaggerates the forces of good and evil, in keeping with the original’s historical and folkloric background.

Gretel (Freya Davis) and her brother Hansel (Dylan Jones) start life happy but poor. There is war everywhere around them and starvation too, but their little home in the woods is filled with love. Then their mother (Molly Perkins) dies, leaving them in the care of their kindly woodcutter father (Calum Blackie). But he has been wounded in the war and relies ever more on his children for help. Somehow (fairy tales don’t bother with too many explanations or justifications) he attracts the attention of a woman who becomes the children’s wicked stepmother (Zoe Bull). She hates the children from the start, and contrives to send them out into the forest to die. But they are ‘rescued’ by a group of very weird and colourful witches.

From here on in the play becomes darkly surreal. The witches take delight in tormenting their young captives, for whom they have reserved a special fate. It all ends well, of course, but while the love that helps them overcome is bright, the evil is very dark indeed. There are no shades of grey.

I overheard some people in the audience saying, “It’s not very Christmassy.” And so it isn’t, not in the sense that we’ve come to expect. This is deeper, older, more primal, visceral even.

As always with Playbox’s big shows there is a huge cast, made up of actors of all ages. The acting, costumes and choreography are superb, and a great deal is achieved with very simple props, in this case dozens of thick ropes hanging from the ceiling upon which members of the cast climb and twirl, turning themselves into spirits to narrate this dark tale of the forest.

Gretel is an ambitious experiment in theatre that pushes the boundaries already extended by Playbox’s tradition of original and bold imagineering. There were times when I found the action a little confusing, and sometimes I couldn’t hear clearly what was being said, and the first half took a bit too long to develop. But the overall effect was awesome. It brought to a close It brought to a close what for me has been another thrilling year in theatre, of which we can be justly proud.

* Gretel runs until December 31. Call 01926 419555 or visit www.playboxtheatre.com to book.