Outdoor theatre? In December? Yes, it’s happening! Brighton Open Air Theatre (BOAT) have launched their first ever Christmas programme with a bang as
Feel good fun that ends on a real high
A play within a play, we get to follow both the story of Hansel and Gretel, and story of the production of Hansel and Gretel, as the fairytale is interspersed with scenes of the actors going through first night nerves, kindling romance and debating the true meaning of a fairytale ending. Hey, they did promise postmodern. Despite sounding a little confusing on paper, it makes sense in practice, and you quickly jump on board to enjoy a rip-roaring ride.
Music Director Glen Richardson and writer Luke R. Francis are a perfect pairing. Francis’s script is witty and clever, packed full of snappy quips and theatrical allusions, complemented by chart topping tunes. The whole production hinges on their ability to add fresh lyrics to the tunes of popular songs, and they do so with great success. During the show many of the audience members were mouthing along to the new versions within seconds (“there’s some wolves in this house” being a notable example) and I even found myself a couple of days later humming the tune to Sia’s Chandelier, but with the Hansel and Gretel? lyrics running through my mind.
The hard working set designed by Eleanor Bull portrayed a variety of scenes with a minimum of fuss and her costumes, especially for Dafydd Weeks’s characters, were dazzling. Bull’s set designs were brilliantly brought to life by lighting designer Connor Lovejoy who created an on stage oven scene so vivid it almost (almost) warmed my frozen fingers.
The cast (most of whom also starred in The Snow Queen, BOAT’s other production this winter), looked delighted to be on stage. Douglas Rutter charmed the audience from the get go as the show’s frenzied director, with a look and temperament reminiscent of David Tennant’s performance in Staged whilst the central romance between Toni and Bill was packed full of chemistry. You couldn’t help but really root for the two actors, played by Antonia Draper and Jade Kennedy, to finally realise their feelings for each other. However, it’s Dafydd Weeks who was given plenty of opportunity to scene steal as the show’s Dame and villain. Whether dressed in full drag as the wicked stepmother Nefaria or dressed simply in a pink dressing grown and wig cap as actor Simon, Weeks fills the stage with his personality. Perhaps his most memorable moment was as the Dragonwolf, a mythical mash up who owed more than a little to Gavin and Stacey’s Nessa, with a tight fitting outfit to match. And you’re certain to never forget the funniest (and perhaps most family friendly) version of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s WAP you’re likely to see this year.
Be aware that this isn’t your traditional family friendly pantomime: the recommended age is for eight years and over. Although there’s nothing too explicit, and any inappropriate references are likely to simply fly over the heads of younger ones, there are mild allusions to drug use, as well as mild bad language and suggestive movements. However, with a Dame, lots of audience interaction (including, of course, “he’s behind you!”) and slapstick fight scenes, there are still plenty of recognisable panto elements to deserve the title.
The show’s only flaw is perhaps that it’s not actually particularly Christmassy. Sure, there’s a gingerbread house and a fir tree forest, but the added snark and adult leaning material tears away some of the corny Christmas tropes you might expect at this time of year and there isn’t anything new added to replace them. Perhaps including a rendition of an iconic Christmas tune such as Last Christmas amongst the soundtrack might have upped the festive factor to another level. And yes, even on a dry night it does get cold. You are pre-warned, so it’s your own responsibility to put on your warmest coat, thickest socks and don your hats, scarves and gloves to stay as toasty as possible whilst sitting still outdoors for an hour. Part of BOAT’s charm is that you can bring your own food and drink, so feel free to bring a flask of tea to warm your cockles, or, if you’d prefer, the venue’s bar serves hot drinks as well as snacks and tipples.
Hansel and Gretel? is an hour of feel good fun that ends on a real high. The energy of the finale would have raised the roof if there had been one, and it was almost poignant to see the performers and audience join together in joyous applause. Outdoor theatre during a British winter might sound mad, but with performances as good as this, you’d be mad to miss it.