Hansel and Gretel

Featuring a role call of fictional favourites, the MAC's fairytale production places a feast of Northern Irish theatre talent firmly in the (sweet) shop window

Rhiann Jeffrey's festive debut Hansel and Gretel at the MAC is an alluring pick 'n' mix of folklore candy and theatrical liquorice, with an austere theme and austere faith in its own potential.

Jeffrey, Musical Director Garth McConaghie along with a fine cast have a bristling, Beckettian energy that burns bright and even outshines other elements of Simon Magill and Stephen Beggs' modern day adaptation of the 1812 Brothers' Grimm classic.

We open with Gretel (Rosie Barry), starkly lit, achingly crooning on a battered piano to her brother (Michael Drake) in their modest home, slumped on a rug worn by age. It's a classy, beautifully sparse opening that smacks of authentic charm.

Rosie Barry and Michael Drake as Hansel & Gretel

Rosie Barry and Michael Drake as Hansel & Gretel

Barry and Drake have an elastic likeability, hurling each other around the set like spring puppets. Their dreams of a simple Christmas of 'family ties' are scuppered by their spendthrift mother (Louise Matthews) and their unemployed, loveable, trumpet-tooting dad (Keith Lynch). They and we are whisked off to the fuscia glow of the Emerald Square Shopping Centre to wield another axe at the Barclaycard,  a sign of the times and a solid riff in this production where the women are the forces of the plot's momentum.

Carla Barrow offers excellent Costume Design throughout. Her choices are clean, crisp and practical, from slick Christmas shoppers to the devilish, Cruella-inspired Sugar Witch (Colette Lennon). She explodes into life after an electrical storm hurtles our siblings from the clatter of modern consumerism into a smoky limbo world of comic superheroes and fabled figures. Gorgeously lit by Simon Bird, the all-star ensemble bands together to help the brother and sister duo find their way home, dropping, of course, a regiment of sweets along the way. 

Colette Lennon as the Sugar Witch

Colette Lennon as the Sugar Witch

Keith Singleton and Brigid Shine fizz and crackle with tireless energy as Peter Pan and Tinkerbell, exuding compact physicality. Jeffrey's direction during the eerily lit underworld scenes show off her deft grasp of stage depth and belief in the grip of young, unhinged energy that careers into the beltingly villainous Colette Lennon, who laps up the camp with a sharp, savvy edge.

This is Jeffrey's Hansel and Gretel in its artistic fifth gear and McConaghie's composition exhilarates during Lennon and Barry's solo numbers, two of a phalanx of vocal riches the show has at its disposal. There's outstanding singing here.

During Act II, the gang collide into a selection box of seasonal theatre staples, from Red Riding Hood to the Three Little Pigs. The trio especially offer a gold mine of culchie, swine-related chuckles, scuttling with delirious Chaplinesque absurdity. Light-hearted, funny and accessible but, much like your favourite saccharine snack, it leaves you wanting more. It's only here that Hansel and Gretel might be in danger of disenchanting, as it's obvious an extra helping of that humour topped off with another savory set-piece would be light work for the bevy of established and fertile talent involved.

Rosie Barry as Gretel & Kieth Singleton as the Security Guard

Rosie Barry as Gretel and Keith Singleton as the Security Guard

Michael Drake in particular, is perfectly at home in his first professional production as Hansel. Petulant and pedantic throughout, 'I am 183 centimeters tall!' he defiantly spits during capture by the Sugar Witch, whose ultimate ploy appears to be the sadistically culinary boiling down of children to make her morbid supply of liquorice. Shine's acerbic, zero hours Witch's Assistant too, is deliciously pitched – 'Yes, my Benevolence...'

Mercifully, the day is saved by the gang with a cameo from Christmas' Leading Man, Santa. Further evidence of the gentle charisma of Richard Croxford. The dream fades. Reality kicks in. The Shopping Centre. Mum. Dad. Shopping bags. Winter. We see Gretel, small, stubborn, successful in her festive quest, clanging at that piano again – surrounded by a cast of real scattered faces, real Christmas jumpers, real notes (I can see her playing this number) and real warmth and the snow falls. Merry Little Christmas.

Hansel and Gretel, sponsored by Phoenix Natural Gas, plays at the MAC, Belfast until Sunday, January 7. The show is for all-ages, but those who are five and up will get the biggest kicks. To book tickets visit www.themaclive.com or call (028) 9023 5053.