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Review: Hansel and Gretel at Cambridge Junction is full of delights, emotion and social commentary





Maddy Costa delivers a verdict on the Cambridge Junction’s festive show.

In 2011, when New International Encounters (NIE) first created their version of Hansel and Gretel, austerity politics were already widening the poverty gap across the UK: a gap that has become a chasm in the 12 years since.

Hansel and Gretel, the 2023 pantomime at the Cambridge Junction. Picture: Claire Haigh
Hansel and Gretel, the 2023 pantomime at the Cambridge Junction. Picture: Claire Haigh

Returning to the show, director Alex Byrne is direct and acerbic in addressing the present context for this thorny tale of a starving family reaching for selfish solutions.

The cost of living crisis and homelessness are addressed, and within the first five minutes the word “famine” is carefully explained in terms of bare cupboards and not being able to pop to a Sainsbury’s Local. Reassurances to the audience that “it might not happen to you” come with a sting.

The resulting show could be bleak, but the cast of five find a perfect balance between pantomimic silliness, heartfelt emotion and serious social commentary. As Nigel, the children’s papa, David Osmond is a figure of puckish cunning and extravagant remorse: whether hangry and threatening to eat the audience (“an insurance nightmare”) or desperate to atone for dumping the children in the forest, he froths with melodramatic absurdity.

Hansel and Gretel, the 2023 pantomime at the Cambridge Junction. Picture: Claire Haigh
Hansel and Gretel, the 2023 pantomime at the Cambridge Junction. Picture: Claire Haigh

His husband Nicholas is given a softer physicality by Martin Bonger, especially evident when interacting with Hansel and Gretel in puppet form. It’s telling that the Grimms’ tale feels less misogynistic for having the mother removed.

The doubling – even tripling – of the children brings a quiet magic and playful shifts in perspective. Abayomi Oniyide’s Hansel and Stefanie Mueller’s Gretel have the bounce and innocence of children, but also a beady truthfulness: it’s a shock when Hansel declares Gretel a thief and a murderer, an uncomfortable fact unnamed in the original tale.

Hansel and Gretel, the 2023 pantomime at the Cambridge Junction. Picture: Claire Haigh
Hansel and Gretel, the 2023 pantomime at the Cambridge Junction. Picture: Claire Haigh

This sincerity contrasts starkly with the glib pronouncements of their parents, who are, like Rishi Sunak, “making long-term decisions for a brighter future” in abandoning the children to a perilous fate. There’s a particularly jagged moment when Samantha Sutherland’s tweedy Witch channels Suella Braverman and comes out kinder. “Homeless?” she declares on meeting Hansel and Gretel. “That’s not a lifestyle choice: that’s a horror story.”

With gentleness, with humour, NIE keep horror at bay. There’s sweetness in the music, played live by the five performers, and the many interactions with the audience, who relish shouting out foods to fatten Hansel.

Hansel and Gretel, the 2023 pantomime at the Cambridge Junction. Picture: Claire Haigh
Hansel and Gretel, the 2023 pantomime at the Cambridge Junction. Picture: Claire Haigh

The staging – also by Mueller – is full of delights: the tiny birdcage in which Hansel is trapped, the exquisite miniature gingerbread house, the forest of delicate birch trees. And while the moral of the Grimms’ story is murky, here it has luminous clarity: where there is plenty, says Gretel, no one needs go without – and if we all shared more, everyone would have enough. Whether “sharing” means donating to food banks or entirely rethinking structures of wealth is left to the audience to decide.

Hansel and Gretel is showing at Cambridge Junction from Friday, 22 December to Sunday, 31 December, for ages five-plus. Visit https://www.junction.co.uk/events/hansel-gretel/ for tickets, priced at £20 (£13.50 concessions).



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