Hansel & Gretel is the quintessential tale of abandonment and child abuse. Psychologists following them into that dark forest speak of the terror of rejection and other dreads at the heart of our individual and cultural psyches but you can't have a Grimm tale at Christmas so the Kneehigh production at Bristol Old Vic gave us a much jollier version. This is a rumbustuous lederhosen yodelling romp, enlivened by song, puppet rabbits and philosophical hens, and exciting Heath-Robinson contraptions. As their parents are too ineffective to lose them successfully, the children set off into the forest themselves like Enid Blyton kids on a holiday adventure. Having dispatched the witch - who rears up like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction in a very funny protracted death scene - they head home with a picnic singing the family song Yes we are fine and we are dandy. Don't have nightmares, kids.
There's much to enjoy in this retelling, beginning before we even reach our seats with a journey through the Old Vic's underbelly dressed for the occasion with witchy decorations like eggs clamped in clawlike dangling forks. There's the live music, Carl Grosse's manic transvestite witch, Giles King who brought wonderful energy to the action as both the mother and the witch's birdlike familiar. The set, essentially a vast tower of metal riggings, seems designed to facilitate the impressive array of stage tricks rather than enhance the atmosphere of the story, and the one element that was missing was emotional engagement with the characters. To me it all belonged to a more innocent time, the era of Terry and June, tickle-sticking business from a ferret in the trousers, and the incredible inventions of Professor Branestawm. But the mostly-teenaged full house audience clearly loved it and that's what matters.