Hansel and Gretel, Cottesloe, NT, London

 

When she's not directing adult theatre of extraordinary rigour and imaginative reach, Katie Mitchell does a smart line in children's Christmas shows.

Aimed at seven to 10 year olds, her third seasonal offering at the National is perhaps less exhilarating and inventive than its predecessors (The Cat in the Hat and last year's Beauty and the Beast), but at the performance I saw it certainly seemed to hit the spot with a packed audience of school kids.   

For this adaptation (co-devised with dramatist Lucy Kirkwood), the Cottesloe has been configured in traditional proscenium arch fashion with a red curtain, footlights and three sets of wings that allow the cast to charge back and forth across the stage like figures in a mad silent movie chase. 

A characteristically playful and shrewd take on this dark tale of children abandoned in a forest by a wicked stepmother, the show has a wacky framing device. The Brothers Grimm appear at the start as a Victorian vaudeville double-act who race around in desperate pursuit of stories that are seen streaking like elusive birds through the Black Forest. 

When they eventually net one, they shove it into their special Heath Robinson-esqe Confabulator machine but unfortunately tumble into it themselves – “I've never seen a story from inside out before,” marvels Jacob.

For an awful moment, I thought the presence of this pair was going to herald a sort of retold-for-infants version of Into the Woods, Sondheim's preachily self-reflexive Grimm romp.

But the duo have to get out of the way because Justin Salinger and Amit Shah – both adorable – re-emerge in a variety of roles – including Rotislav, the witch's Russian oven (it's not easy doing a Cossack dance when your legs are sticking out of a stove) and Stuart, her pet bat, who starts off as one of the creepily articulated puppets (my absolutely favourite bit was when he played a snatch of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” on the euphonium – don't ask) and is transformed back into a hilariously affected Slavic ballet dancer. 

Kate Duchene is splendidly pervy as the villainous crone who sings that “The problem with being a witch/Is that everyone thinks you're an...evil person”. The ditties, with music by Paul Clark, have throughout a cheerfully dodgy way with rhyme.  If not quite in the class of its predecessors (which set a formidably high standard), this is a very likeable and charming alternative to non-posh panto.

To 26 Jan; 0207 452 3000

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