Scottish Opera took their production of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel to Paisley Town Hall which was resplendent in red and white, as if the Claus's interior designer had been in to set the scene. As the audience assembled there were Santa hats, Christmas jumpers, and cheer aplenty with a festive feel all round. As the music began, it was a nice change to see conductor Stuart Stratford and the orchestra on stage instead of in the pit, making their role more prominent than it ususally is, and they were rightly given their own seperate ovation at the end.
The two leads, Lea Shaw as 'Hansel' and Catriona Hewitson as 'Gretel', were superb capturing the complexities and wonder of childhood with their actions and expressions. The singing was as excellent as we have come to expect, but it was their perfromances which really hit the back of the room. The glee as they played with their toys and danced together was infectious, then came the worry and fear when their mother returned to find their chores yet to be done, switching the mood immediately. Part of the tale being told was that poverty and hunger were having a profound effect on the whole family, and it soon became clear that their mother wasn't so much wicked as weary, the pressure to feed, clothe, and raise her family coming to bear.
The fact that both the mother, and later the witch of the woods, were played by Shuna Scott Sendall, gave the roles a symmetry that brought the story together. Sendall particularly enjoyed her role of the witch, which, for me, had 'Grotbags' energy about it (if you don't know, have a Google). Other characters included Ross Cumming's 'hail-fellow-well-met' 'Father' who made quite the entrance, emerging from the audience and clearly surprising quite a good number as he did so. Literally bringing home the bacon, his role was brief but memorable. Inna Husieva's 'The Dew Fairy' had 'Glinda the Good' vibes (if Glinda was a primary school teacher) as she brought sleep to the protagonists and brief respite.
📷 credit - Sally Jubb
Working hard throughout were the Junior Chorus, who didn't just provide some magical musical moments but helped to bring on props and sets, and were generally made use of in a manner with which Hansel and Gretel may have sympathised! But their sheer, and shared, joy at being part of the whole, and performing in front of friends and family, was clear throughout. There's something about children on stage at this time of year which uplifts the spirits and gladdens the heart.
The production was deceptively simple, and all the better for it. Food stuffs such as a jug of milk were represented by drawings on paper (when it was broken, the paper was simply ripped up), and similarly the set used child-like depictions of trees and the dreaded witch's oven (all designed and drawn by the Junior Chorus), and Hansel's chains were paper ones. Mention has to be made of the lighting, which did a lot of work in terms of creating atmosphere and a sense of place. Lighting Supervisor Barry McDonald should take a bow.
As with many Grimm fairy tales, and other folk tales of the time, they work on a number of levels. There is the non-too-subtle lesson to children that greed and gluttony are bad, and that children who disobey their parents are heading for trouble. However, what this production focused on was that the impact poverty had on their lives, stopping them being just children with all that should entail. For all the fun there was an important message at its sizable heart.
This Hansel and Gretel (directed by Roxana Haines) kicked off the week before Christmas in style with a production which banished all notions of 'Bah, humbug' and which would bring a smile to the face, and a tear to the eye, of Scrooge himself.