Turning Hansel and Gretel into a ballet, Liam Scarlett is determined to be very, very dark. Updated to the 1950s, his version of the fairy tale features domestic violence, a paedophile witch and warnings that this production is not suitable for children. Despite clever design and a fine cast from The Royal Ballet, Scarlett can’t make his own story bite.
Scarlett is one of ballet’s bright young things. Still in his mid-twenties, he already has an international career as a choreographer, with The Royal Ballet as his home company. The new Hansel and Gretel, his first full-length work, has been created for Linbury Studio Theatre, rather than the main stage of the Royal Opera House.
The aim is an intimate, claustrophobic staging, with the audience on two sides of the stage. The new score by Dan Jones nods to classic Hitchcock soundtracks. Designer Jon Bausor sets the story in a world of depressed, down-at-heel Americana. As the father, Bennet Gartside sits drinking in his dressing-gown. The stepmother, Laura Morera, has a waitress uniform that rides up to show her stocking-tops, a cigarette and a red beehive hairdo with dark roots showing.
The imagery and the dancers are strong enough to put this concept over, but Scarlett’s choreography does little to help. His steps are fluent but waffly, repetitive as dancing and as drama.
Scarlett casts two young Royal Ballet dancers, James Hay and Leanne Cope, as Hansel and Gretel. He has shorts, she has pigtails, and they’re both stuck playing balletic children, skipping about with non-specific joy. Hay and Cope do slightly better with fear and anger, but the characterisation remains paper-thin.
Rather than being abandoned, Hansel is lured away by the Sandman, the Witch’s familiar. Steven McRae is superbly creepy as a human ventriloquist’s dummy, moving with a not-quite-human mix of stiffness and floppy flexibility. As the male Witch, Brian Maloney is a 1950s camp pervert, with a neat jumper and a lurid basement room full of toys. Bausor’s shifting set is brilliant, rising to show a nightmare underworld beneath a neat wooden shed.
Scarlett tries hard to give his characters layers, to make them all compromised and needy. Hansel comes down with Stockholm Syndrome, snuggling up to the groping Witch, prompting Gretel and the jealous Sandman to attack. The characters don’t have enough depth to sustain the darkness Scarlett aims for. Even when he gets his points across, Hansel and Gretel remains both effortful and pat.
Until 11 May. Box office 020 7304 4000