Hansel & Gretel, Museum of Childhood


I’ve never been to the V&A’s Museum of Childhood, let alone after hours. But in the expansive hall and gift shop, one corner has been set up as a playing space for Popup Opera’s Hansel & Gretel. There are shelves of toys and other souvenirs behind us, and sterile glass display cases behind the stage. Our cozy pocket in the grand room has a sinister gloom surrounding what with the autumn evening’s quickly fading light. It’s a suitable space for a story that mostly takes place in the woods overnight, when fairies and witches come out to play.

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Red Riding Hood, Preston Continental


What makes the story of Red Riding Hood so enduring? Is it the clever heroine? Is it the metaphor for growing up? Is it the violence and gore? Horse & Bamboo choose to focus on the colour red and its symbolism in their touring Red Riding Hood. Two actors, Nix Wood and Alex Kanefsky, are actor-storytellers-puppeteers who endow the story with a richness and life that appeals to their young audience as well as their families. The company’s lo-fi touring aesthetic uses a surprising amount of puppets at different sizes, masks and costume to keep the kids’ attention. It’s a bit hodgepodge on the surface but there’s a good amount of layers to this piece: meta theatre, storytelling, playing at the characters, and embodying them. Wood and Kanefsky fluidly switch between the styles that initially feel excessive in their quantity, but the children are so absorbed in the story that cannot be deemed as anything but highly effective and engaging.

The main focus of the story is the dynamic between Red and the Wolf. Mum and Grandma make appearances, but they don’t waste any time getting to the woods. The deeper Red gets, the larger the characters become – a great device. Initially, a tiny Red and mum are reading bedtime stories in a dolls’ house, eventually Wood plays Red in a full mask and the wolf is a nearly life-sized puppet with excellent movement and expression in the head and neck. Music and animated projections add additional detail to Wood’s controlled, emotional physicality communicating the unspeaking Red’s inner life. The wolf and Red focus results in a reinforcement of the “don’t trust strangers particularly if they seem nice” moral, which works for a children’s show but is quite a shallow interpretation in a production that has such depths of performance technique and style.

Red’s cloak is a dark, rich red that stands out beautifully against the rest of the set. Wood sets up red as her favourite colour as she chats with the entering audience pre-show; it’s lovely to watch. Kanefsky is goofy and warm, and loves cakes. This trait follows his characters through the rest of the story. The set is made of abstract blues and greens, inspired by Paul Klee’s art (my initial association was with Kandinsky’s work). Though the idea of starting with visual art for a way into a concept is a common one, the abstract set design clashes with the concrete realism of the puppets and mask, and the animation style was the starkness of shadow puppetry.

As children’s theatre goes, Horse & Bamboo’s Red Riding Hood is more sophisticated than it appears. Despite the moralizing, the craftsmanship and performance skill can be appreciated and enjoyed by all ages. Knowing that Horse & Bamboo are a touring company with just two actors makes their work all the more impressive. An excellent production for families at any time of year, too.

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Red Riding Hood, Pleasance Theatre


As it’s the run up to Christmas, pantos are saturating our stages. There are the traditional ones and plenty that give themselves another label in the hope of getting attention: boutique, adult and gay spring to mind. Then there are other shows that are close to panto in that they’re family friendly and/or based on fairytales, like Polka Theatre’s Beauty & the Beast. New musical Red Riding Hood, by the team that brought audiences the stage adaptation of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary, also falls into this category. The largely excellent, Disney-style songs are this production’s strongest feature, but unfortunately the cheap-looking set, and now-antiquated style of children’s theatre prevent this show from being a stand-out option this holiday season.

Nazarene Williams excels as Little Red. Clever and feisty, she’s a wonderfully pro-active character for young girls to identify with. Her charming sidekick William the Woodcutter (Matthew Jay-Ryan) is dopey and fun, but a good enabler and supports Red on her quest to save her family’s bakery. Matthew Barrow has more character as the wolf; his dad lacks energy in comparison. Mum Holly-Anna Lloyd is a strong singer, but she looks the same age as her daughter and the character lacks maturity. Patsy Blower completes the cast of five as the witty grandma. All of them are strong singers with that powerful, modern American Broadway tone that kids recognize from Disney films.

The book and design are a let down, though. Brunger’s writing is simplistic and not suitable for children in the upper years of primary school, and there are some unnecessary scenes that seem like they were written to add length rather than the main storyline. Three schools were there, and on several occasions the children got bored and started talking amongst themselves: a powerful indicator of this production’s issues. The story has a well-shaped structure and an interesting plot, but the dialogue isn’t far off that in Town Hall Cherubs, which is pitched to 2-5 year olds. This makes the actors perform in that exaggerated style of performance that used to be the signature of all children’s theatre, but many productions have now become much more sophisticated, even for very young children. The design looks great in dim light and the patchwork tree leaves are a particularly lovely idea, but with the lights up, they look like cheap, enlarged photocopies and the flats themselves are flimsy. The birds in the forest are origami paper cranes that the actors fly around, but there is no movement within the birds themselves. The paper rabbit on a stick slid across the floor has the same disappointing lack of impact. Grandma’s pet parrot, an actual puppet, is a much better use of puppetry. There are obvious budget constraints here, but a simpler approach may have been more effective rather than trying to make the set look grand but not having the materials available to do so.

The songs are excellent though, and there are plenty of them. From moving duets to powerful solos and whole-cast numbers, they pull back the attention every time. There are some trite lyrics here and there, but Pippa Cleary’s music is great. The show isn’t beyond rescue, though. With some re-writes and additional invention (like William’s wonderful magic book) to make it more distinctive and develop the characters, this could be an excellent example of modern children’s theatre.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.