The one with the edible house and the child-eating witch

The one with the edible house and the child-eating witch

Originally published 2019

We all have different experiences of being told stories as a child. Some of us might think of fairytales or nursery rhymes, read to us before bed while the big light was still on. Some of us might think of a first book that took weeks of perseverance to master. Some of us might think of the amazing characters we met, and some of us might only remember pictures on pages.

It’s hard to remember what the magic of good storytelling felt like, before – as an adult – it evolves into anecdotes down the pub and well produced TV adverts. However, Hansel and Gretel at Norwich Puppet Theatre brings the intrigue and romance of storytelling back to life, in a way that is a delight for children and mesmerising for adults.

The show is a collaboration between Norwich Puppet Theatre, and theatre makers Goody and Storey, and runs for various dates in February before touring across other venues in the UK (to find out more click here).

We all know the story, although – like me – perhaps you’ve forgotten…  

Hansel and Gretel is a dark fairytale by masters of the genre: the Brothers Grimm. Of course there are many variations, but essentially it goes like so: a poor woodcutter, his wife and two children (Hansel and Gretel) live in a forest and are facing hard times. Food is scarce, and feeding four mouths is a struggle. The woodcutter’s wife – who is stepmother to the two children – devises a plan to take Hansel and Gretel deep into the woods and lose them there so that they will never find their way back home. Eventually her plan succeeds, and Hansel and Gretel end up in the hands of a child-eating witch, who imprisons the children in her gingerbread house, and tries to fatten up Hansel before she has him for tea (told you it was dark). However, Hansel and Gretel outwit the evil witch and escape (not before booting her into a massive oven), and eventually make their way back home to their father to live happily ever after. Cor.

‘It’s a story about getting lost, to get lost in’

If you haven’t seen a puppet show before, or haven’t been to Norwich Puppet Theatre, it’s an experience like absolutely nothing else. The venue is a converted medieval church in the Cathedral Quarter of the city, and one of only 3 such dedicated theatres in the country. The artform itself is equally unique, and for all ages is a rare time to suspend disbelief and experience some really visual theatre. What makes it more special is that this magic doesn’t come to you in the form of 3D lenses, green screens and impressive CGI; everything you see is tactile and right before your eyes, in touching distance.

The performance of Hansel and Gretel begins gently. As you go into the small auditorium (painted like the night sky), you see a forest on the stage, lit up in green and blue. ‘Wilf’ sits on stage, and as the audience take their seats, he tends to the cardboard trees, polishing them and making sure the model birds are all in the right places. One by one, the audience go quiet as we watch Wilf sit on a stool, using scissors to work on something we can’t quite see. So far, not a word has been spoken, but the show has started without any of us realising. Then – breaking the reverie – Wilf throws hundreds of colourful leaves into the air, and the stage is set (the child behind me helpfully told his dad that “that man’s going to need a hoover”).

‘miraculous transformations take place and new worlds develop in the place of others’

The beginning of the show is just an example of the way the show ebbs and flows between different moods, tempos and sets. As Hansel and Gretel – two beautiful, folk-like puppets – act out the story on stage (joined at points by the woodcutter, his nagging wife, and a very fabulous witch…), miraculous transformations take place and new worlds develop in the place of others. For children, this is picture book illustration come to life: Wilf seems to use all sorts of mechanics and trickery to transform the stage before your very eyes. Watching the story unfold as an adult, it reminded me of watching Disney’s Sleeping Beauty again after 20 years: you still get the magic of the fairytale, but on another level you can appreciate the artistry and spectacle in a way that passes you by as a child.

And let’s face it, Hansel and Gretel isn’t necessarily the easiest of stories to tell. It’s a story full of peril, but the production is full of hope, and is very funny in places. The witch, especially, got a lot of laughs from the audience – she reveals herself in the most unexpected way…

Wilf is great too: he casts a fun figure, as he runs around the set dressed in baggy trousers and braces. Comically, he’s as tall as the trees, yet hunches uncomfortably over his tiny cardboard campfire. In fact, Wilf is played by one half of the theatre making duo, Goody and Storey, who have produced the show with Norwich Puppet Theatre. For Jonathan Storey, “the imaginative world of fairy tales provide a prism through which children might make sense of the confusing world of adults”, which is why Goody and Storey love this particular tale so much. For them, the resilience and imagination of Hansel and Gretel ultimately triumph over the fear and greed of adults, which makes this “a story that delights in the brilliance of children”.

Basically, this is everything you want storytelling to be. It’s someone ‘doing the voices’, and making a magical land come out of the pages and into real life. It has the repetition of nursery rhymes, that makes the audience feel involved and familiar with what’s going on. Plus, there’s a song and dance number at the end, so everyone leaves on a high.

It’s a really wonderful show, and a very special experience. From the moment you step through the doors of the building you are transported to another world where lights twinkle and theatre is more fantastic that you ever imagined it could be.