Hansel and Gretel review – kids' house party with sweet beats

Choreographer Vicki Igbokwe is best known for recreating her experience of New York nightclubs in immersive dance performances. That late-night milieu might seem a long way from a Christmas fairytale kids’ show, but many of the same elements appear in her first children’s outing, Hansel and Gretel.

This Grimm brothers’ remake is filled with the full-bodied movement and bold shapes of African dance, the bounce and jacking bodies of house, and a few waacking arms swiping their stylish semaphore. And then there’s the music: deep house and Afrobeats by composer Kweku Aacht – clubby not kiddy. I’m not the only one bopping quietly in my seat.

Igbokwe is imaginative in her treatment of the story. Hansel and Gretel (the indefatigable and ever-smiling Marc Stevenson and Mayowa Ogunnaike) are lone refugees from an unnamed African country, landed in London. Separated by the system from a friendly fellow immigrant called Wasi (Esme Benjamin) who cared for them en route, they repeatedly try to find their way back to her, following a trail of memorable sights and smells – rather than breadcrumbs – through the city.

Imaginative … Mayowa Ogunnaike (Gretel), Esme Benjamin (Wasi), Rudzani Moleya (Joy) and Marc Stevenson (Hansel) in Hansel and Gretel. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

That’s an adult theme but it’s treated lightly, food for the grown-ups in a piece that is frequently focused on younger children with its games of peekaboo and hide-and-seek. This show has warmth, energy and a very likable cast of four, but there are definite problems with tone and pace.

It feels as though Igbokwe is torn between making a literal narrative and something more poetic. Narration and script are delivered via voiceover, which sometimes works very well, but can also leave a bit of a disconnect with the performers. The main issue is that the story doesn’t build its arc strongly enough; the climax – an encounter with a stranger bearing sweets – and the ending are both underwhelming.

It’s great to see Igbokwe’s distinctive style made for an all-ages audience, the dancing’s cool and there’s a positive message about courage, resourcefulness and sticking together, but she needs to nail the nuts and bolts of storytelling to let the joy of the movement sing.

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