Hansel, The Salberg, Salisbury Playhouse

EDITH, growing increasingly dotty with age, lives alone in a house in the Cornish woods, hoarding her rubbish and brooding.  Every three months her no-nonsense middle-aged daughter Viv descends on her from London, briskly taking over, clearing and cleaning, despite her mother’s feeble protests.  Outside in the woods lives a nameless runaway teenager, kept going by Edith’s tuna sandwiches and the promise of hot chocolate.

Out of the shifting relationships of these three ill-matched characters, Shiona Morton creates a gripping drama, uncovering the roots of Edith’s isolation and eccentricity and Viv’s emotional detachment in a family trauma.  The boy is the unconscious catalyst to a redemptive growth in the women’s relationship.

Frankie Bradshaw’s atmospheric set more or less fills The Salberg from ceiling to floor, combining three towering trees with an overflowing profusion of Edith’s junk.  The set is both realistic and symbolic.  The trees teem with the junk which is both the treasured physical flotsam and jetsam of Edith’s life and the mental shackles which are imprisoning her.  This may sound complicated, but the play’s strength is its clarity in giving theatrical life to complex ideas.  We are alternately inside and outside the house, and James Mackenzie’s expert lighting makes it clear which.

The play is very rich in its language, with frequent use of extended dramatic monologues in which all three characters can share and extend their thoughts and perspectives with the audience.  Elizabeth Counsell makes Edith both funny in her eccentricity and moving in her consciousness of her own condition, her wide-eyed unblinking stares suggesting oceans of buried grief.  Zara Ramm never pushes Viv’s briskness to a point at which she loses our sympathy, and her character’s mellowing and emotional growth in the later stages of the play are very moving.  Lee Rufford makes the boy a completely credible damaged teenager with a backstory which we utterly accept.  Throughout, Jo Newman’s direction paces the revelations and unpeelings of family history expertly.

By calling the play ‘Hansel’, Morton is inviting us to see her realistic drama in terms of the Hansel and Gretel fairy story.  This is no simple updating, however, and the contrasts with the fairy story are as illuminating as the comparisons.  Edith is no wicked witch: neither is Viv, although her claims to the role are stronger.  The boy has no Gretel to keep him company:  his isolation and solitude are complete.  Morton’s writing constantly challenges and delights, with all three characters developed through the telling of their stories, and the slow uncovering of their painful histories.  It’s no surprise at all that the play has won awards.

Combining myth and fairy story with gripping and moving psychological realism, Shiona Morton’s beautifully-crafted new play is a highly recommendable night at the theatre.  Catch it while you can!

Paul Jordan

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