Hänsel and Gretel, Opera Holland Park, London

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The Independent Culture

Here's a first. As the sweetly atmospheric prelude fades away, the stillness is rudely shattered by the abrasive wail of an air-raid siren sounding the all-clear. Two gas-masked faces peep around a gigantic door. It sits at the centre of sinister, charcoal-drawn walls depicting the forbidding forest beyond. We are in wartime, for sure, a time of fear and austerity and rationing, but whether in Germany or dear old Blighty (there are resonances of both and the sung language is German, of course) is pretty much irrelevant to Stephen Barlow's wittily effective staging. What matters to Hänsel and Gretel is that it's a strange world to be growing up in.

And that door – it is the way in and the way out of trouble and strife, it is the portal to a child's imagination. So that when in the fading light of day our young protagonists get lost in the forest (and in this setting you get an enthusiastic ornithological accompaniment), the door firmly shuts on them. But the Sandman (Katherine Allen) is a familiar figure from homeland security bringing, well, sandbags on which they can rest their weary heads. I wouldn't want to give away all the surprises of the Dream Pantomime, suffice it to say that what little boy and little girl wouldn't want to be King and Queen for a day?

Barlow misses only one trick, I'd say, and that's in making something pointedly Freudian of Anne Mason's deliciously ripe double as Gertrud – the mother – and the Witch. I'm sure Humperdinck had that at the back of his mind and the place to do it is during the Witch's Ride transition into the second scene. It's true that Mason's Gertrud is overly possessive of her broom, but I should like to have seen a suggestion of her transformation – the "cruel to be kind" metaphor is surely too tempting to let slip.

But a smashing show, well sung and played under Peter Selwyn's baton with relish of the score's graceful and rumbustious dancing quality. Joana Seara's pint-sized Gretel and Catherine Hopper's strapping Hänsel are just the business and Donald Maxwell's seasoned father booms exuberantly.

And that tempting Gingerbread House? Well, think a bumper box of German cakes. There are dark allusions here, not all of them as jokey as the Battenberg cake gag. But rest assured that it will all end happily with a street party.