The Bristol Old Vic has been turned into a spooky playground for the alternative Christmas story of a brother and sister abandoned by their parents in the forest and captured by the wicked cannibal witch. The undercroft and the foyer are decorated with mini-installations and gruesome recipes. The stage is a giant structure of ropes, pulleys and steel scaffolding.
The Brothers Grimm story is always a seasonal favourite in the Humperdinck operatic version, but you might say the Vic and Kneehigh Theatre – the Cornish-based company is going to play a big part in the new Tom Morris regime – are upping the horror ante and appealing to young teenagers and student bohemians rather than the kindergarten crowd.
The little white puppet bunnies who philosophically frame the action are a comforting diversion. By the time the blind witch – the barrel-shaped Carl Grose in a blonde wig and stained eau de nil slip – and her captive Bolivian condor shout "Let's get cooking" a la Ready Steady Cook, most families will be wishing they'd booked for something less grisly, like Titus Andronicus.
A flaming grill flares like a forest fire while Craig Johnson's Hansel stuffs himself stupid in a large wicker cage, plumping up nicely for the old bird's feast. Michael Vale's design is now littered with teddy bears, little pairs of shoes and rows of kitchen knives and machetes, while Joanna Holden's Gretel sits helplessly by. The place is a sickly toast house, a nightmare cottage loaf.
This second half of Mike Shepherd's production is quite something, almost compensating for the narrative tedium of the first. The identical twins have separate interests – he's a bookworm, she's an inventor – and the happy family chop wood, skin rabbits and are visited by two happy yodeling musicians in their lederhosen and Tyrolean hats.
One day, my son, you too will have a ferret down your trousers, says father, and so it comes to pass. But not before the scenes of hardship, deprivation and worm-chewing that lead to child sacrifice. The show is designed around a simple raised wooden disc and flecked with dirge-like songs by the onstage musos Stu Barker and Ian Ross: Tiger Lilies meets Tom Waits, just right for Christmas cheerlessness.
At least now Bristol audiences know what they're in for, and Kneehigh fans might be deluded into thinking they've stormed a cultural citadel; it's a fairly good heartless show, not a great one.
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