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The cast of 'Hansel & Gretel' in the Round at the Stephen Joseph Theatre

This year’s SJT Christmas show, adapted by Mike Kenny and directed by Henry Bell, features music specially created by Stornoway bassist, Oli Steadman. Adrian Riley ventured along to experience a refreshing take on a musical play.

More than any other time of year, Christmas is when a theatre can provide a magical experience like no other. The Stephen Joseph Theatre's Hansel & Gretel is powered by the magic of imagination in which the two children and their parents weave the fairytale around the kitchen table.

With a cast of just four adults, authentic costumes, and a set comprised of the family kitchen table and crockery, this musical play couldn't be much further from the over-the-top spectacle of a Christmas pantomime but it is this almost minimalist approach that marks the production as something unique.

As the story progresses and the cast switch back and forth from being the storytelling family to the fairytale characters within, the contents of the kitchen are put to use to create the set: a colander serves as an animal trap; wooden knitting needles become trees; and an unravelled ball of wool and upturned kitchen table transforms into the cage in which the witch imprisons Hansel. It's an approach to storytelling that's intuitive to kids and familiar to any parent who has witnessed an empty box provide more entertainment than the present it originally contained.

Subtle lighting transitions signal changes of mood between scenes with some audience participation for sound effects, and with the aid of a patchwork blanket and tea cosy the children's mother becomes the evil witch. Even the songs are pared down to being a cappella with the only 'music' coming from glasses of water which are struck with a wooden spoon to give the starting note of each song. It's an intriguing approach to delivering a musical and as a result the songs weave seamlessly into the story. There is none of that awkward transition into song but equally no applause-prompting big finishes so typical of musicals today which here might break the spell of the story.

If this stripped-down approach to a family Christmas production sounds like a risk when all the cultural Christmas build-up around is generally gaudy to the max, then that's probably true. But it's also surprisingly refreshing and there are several reasons why this works, not least the SJTs 'in-the-round' setting whereby the audience sits on all four sides of the 'stage' area. The gasps, jumps and delighted joining-in by the children (and plenty of adults) in the audience are testament to how engaged they are.

It's a fantastic and visceral introduction to this type of theatre and the 5 kids we had brought with us ranging from 5 to 11 years old, some completely new to theatre in-the-round, were transfixed.

Therein lies another strength - this production does that clever thing of engaging different ages, largely all at the same time. The cast work hard in what must be physically and mentally demanding roles - there's some fiendishly quick interplay in the dialogue. Elinor Lawless as Gretel is particularly engaging as quite a complex character who struggles with living in her brothers shadow but is ultimately the heroine of the story. Sibling relationships, the nature of bravery, surviving as a family when things are tough; these are all themes that run through the story often popping up when you least expect them, sometimes to comic effect, sometimes more poignantly but never clumsily or clichéd as can happen in shows aimed at a family audience.

Fairytales are all about that shift in reality where a wicked witch in a gingerbread house just possibly might exist deep in your local woods. And that's also the wonder of theatre, where a little mealtime storytelling can become a strange place constructed largely of your own imagination (and just a little magic).

Hansel and Gretel can be seen at the Stephen Joseph Theatre on various dates until Sunday 27 December. Tickets, priced from £9 for children, £15 for adults and family tickets from £40, are available online at www.sjt.uk.com and from the box office on 01723 370541. Suitable for ages 5+.

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