The universal appeal is easy to explain. A brother and sister, both devoted to and irritated by each other, are united in coping with dysfunctional parents beset by adult problems: shortage of money, addiction, the stress of feeding a family of four on nothing. If they lived nearer a town, this family would be entitled to use the food bank.
Elizabeth Karani (Gretel) and Heather Lowe (Hansel) make their own entertainment. Photo: Johan Persson
Timothy Sheader's production places the action roughly into present day. Mother rubs at a scratchcard in her desperation to make ends meet. Father is a brush sales rep. But the look in Peter McKintosh's design is folksy, with plaid and dungarees, which makes the hugely entertaining dream sequence an unexpected delight. For after the kitchen sink drama comes the magic: an adventure in the woods, a flight of fancy, and a tussle with the Witch at the Gingerbread House.
When the Sandman, tenderly and wittily sung by Gillian Keith, helps the lost children to sleep in the woods, they are transported, as if Hansel's toy plane. Cue a cabin crew of plasticky perfection, creamy Barbies and Kens, belting up for take-off and heading for the skies.
This is huge fun, and deftly landed by students from London theatre schools, Arts Educational and Bird College, with supersmooth moves by dependable choreographer Lizzi Gee. Remember Scooch and their disastrous Eurovision entry Flying the Flag? This is air miles better.
The dream sequence in Hansel and Gretel. Photo: Johan Persson
The Haribo-hued Gingerbread House is catnip to hungry kids, who set about eating the walls. 'Greedy, little mousey/ Who's nibbling at my housey?' asks the Witch from within, David Pountney's English translation concise, colourful and for the most part sung with immaculate diction.
ENO Harewood artist tenor John Findon (in short, he's one to watch) as the Witch (Alasdair Elliott at some performances) wiggles in a body-con dress until the great Bake-Off begins. Then the wig comes off, the oven gloves go on, and it's a bun fight to see who gets whom into the oven first. Many cakes are harmed in the making of this show.
Heather Lowe and Elizabeth Karani in the title roles (Rachel Kelly and Susanna Hurrell at some performances) are frisky kids, dancing away their hunger pangs with the Floss. Gweneth Ann Rand swallows some words in her exasperation as a shrill Mother. Rosie Aldridge shares the role. Ben McAteer's Father is a gentle giant. Or catch Duncan Rock at other performances. Star casting indeed.
John Findon (Witch) feeds up Heather Lowe (Hansel). Photo: Johan Persson
Initially hidden, then twinkling through a backcloth, players from the English National Opera Orchestra perform Derek J Clark's reduced score with atmospheric woodwind augmented by the park's own blackbird virtuosi. Slight amplification for voices and players alike coats everything in a slightly syrupy glaze, but is a fair solution to working outdoors.
Here's a confession: Hansel and Gretel was the first opera I saw as a child. I hated it. Too long, too big a theatre, too galumphing. It's why I took my own son first to Don Giovanni – more hiding and fighting. Had I seen Regent's Park Hansel and Gretel first, I'd have had a ball. Fleet of foot, it's at home in its natural habitat. And I'd have wanted to join Pimlico Children's Choir and Foundation Choir, whose members are the tuneful woodland folk. Thanks, kids. You were great.
Hansel and Gretel is sung in English. Further evening performances 19-22 June; matinees on 20, 22 June. Suitable for children of 9 and over
|What||Hansel and Gretel, Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park review|
|Where||Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, Inner Cir, Westminster, London, NW1 4NU | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Regent's Park (underground)|
14 Jun 19 – 22 Jun 19, 8:00 PM – 10:00 PM
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|