Royal Opera House, Covent Garden *****


The abiding memory  leaving the theatre is that this was an abundantly happy show. The excellent cast were enjoying themselves, the orchestra were relishing Mark Wigglesworth’s warmly empathetic response to Humperdinck’s wonderful score, and the audience glow could have lit London’s late-night sky (but the abundant Christmas illuminations got there first).

Anthony McDonald’s simple, convincing directing over picture-book sets of his own design allows all the action of the opera to develop whilst always focussing concentration on the glorious music. If the highlight of the whole evening was the orchestra’s glorious delivery of the Act II prelude, nothing happening onstage, that does not detract from the enthralment of this production.

We begin with a dumbshow through gauze, the family enjoying a simple meal around the kitchen table. Then the reality sets in, Hansel and Gretel (Anna Stephany and Anna Devin both charming and communicative) trying to amuse themselves until their wits’-end mother (Susan Bickley a convincing baddie) arrives, and sends them out into the forest to forage. Darren Jeffrey is a far more sympathetic father than we sometimes see, returning not so much drunk but euphoric at having sold all his stock of brooms.

But it is too late. The children are now lost in the wild wood where a wicked witch is rumoured to live. Stephany and Devin sing a moving Evening Hymn before Isabela Diaz makes a delectably Dickensian little Sandman lulling them to sleep. We then have a beautiful dance-sequence, Grimm fairytale characters (Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, Red Riding Hood – have I missed any?) protect the children enchantingly.

Hansel and Gretel are woken by Sarah Dufresne’s persuasive Dew Fairy, and find they have both dreamed of 14 angels, producing paper cutouts to prove it. But then they stumble upon the Witch’s house, puzzlingly not a gingerbread one in this production, but more like Psycho’s Bates Motel, with a kitchen-knife slicing the roof. Rosie Aldridge is perhaps an over-compliant Witch (I have seen scarier ones), and willingly allows herself to be overturned into a Heath Robinson-like cauldron swilling with melted chocolate.

At which point a phalanx of brilliantly-trained (Cardinal Vaughan School and Grey Coat Hospital) little children emerge, brown-clad, as they have been turned into gingerbread girls and boys, and groping around in dark glasses, as they have been blinded. Hansel’s deft use of the Witch’s magic gas-lighter restores their sight, and they, too, produce paper angel cutouts.

All ends happily, which is how this review began. But a word of praise, too, to the audience. Behaviour was immaculate; I saw only one phone flash all evening; the response was warm and whole-hearted, with so many curtain-calls on this opening night. And standing ovation was there none, as there undoubtedly were all over the musicals in Shaftesbury Avenue – though this presentation certainly deserved one.

Christopher Morley

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