Hansel & Gretel   Production Photo: Carrie Davenport

A Grimm adaptation which is really anything but grim, Tara Lynne O'Neill's Hansel & Gretel, directed by Patrick J O'Reilly, is an energetic, colourful and inventive treat which gets the theatrical "season to be jolly" off to a great start. Jollity, indeed, is key in a piece rich in concepts, lively in movement and sharp in both wit and humour, told mainly through a electric exhibition of rhythm, rhyme and numerous sparky Katie Richardson tunes.

Many of the rhymes pleasingly indicate the poetic influence of a certain Roald Dahl. One of many authors, no doubt, hidden within Stuart Marshall's marvellously designed gloomy library, where Monty (Conor Quinn) is trodden upon by his peers. Condescended to, overlooked and perceived to be both tiny and insignificant, not unlike Dahl's Matilda was either by her parents, Miss Trunchbull or both, Monty is a metaphorical mouse amongst forceful and domineering figures. Thanks to a little "magic" (just go with it) and Gillian Lennox's costume design, the metaphorical mouse becomes a literal one as he leaves his grim world behind for a Grimm world in which Hansel (Odhrán McNulty) and Gretel (Catriona McFeely) reside. All three will soon find themselves cruelly cast away in a Wood Of No Good, with the siblings tempted by the sweets and chocolate in a gingerbread house which will look and feel far too good to believe.

Thus the stage is set for the kind of complicated characteristics and communal cooperation that are central to the finest seasonal films and theatre around. Bringing to mind another piece of Dahl wisdom, that mice can go places where people can't, Monty becomes another avatar for Hansel and Gretel's own narrative, providing encouragement for newfound choice and initiative both for the titular duo and the live audience. It may well be a hint at how life stories can be reconstructed for the better at times where one feels like they've hit the bottom of the chain - unexpected resolve and revolution following abandonment from people who our trio of central characters perhaps thought they could depend on or look up to.

  Production Photo: Carrie Davenport

It's an appealing heroes' journey, and Conor Quinn, Odhrán McNulty and Catriona McFeely perform it so well that it would sustain a good play by itself. But Hansel & Gretel is elevated hugely by its supporting characters - a collection of beavers, bats, cats, talking trees, birds and more superbly brought to life through Marshall's sets, Lennox's costumes, Paula O'Reilly's choreography, Mary Tumelty's lighting and a very lively ensemble. In particular, Mark Dugdale and Christina Nelson, sharing about seven roles each, are hugely enjoyable to watch, with Dugdale's singing bat and the moment where Nelson's Beaver chief, with appropriate uniform, teeth and all, teaches Monty about the value of trust perhaps impressing most. And Orla Gormley's rounded portrayal of the witch Myrtle is a refreshing and quite affecting subversion of the "be yourself" mindset, an exhibition of comic villainy with a genuinely sweet twist.

What I think one can learn from Hansel & Gretel is that sometimes there is more to life than the identities created based on initial beliefs, and that nothing, not even a fairytale we have grown to love and invested ourselves in as a means of escapism, is set in stone. It's a warning, too, about when, be it in the form of strength, confectionery or bonding, the desire for betterment can cross the line into over-indulgence while also revealing dangers which may arise from the more protective aspects in personalities. It shows us that no one is too little to be helpful and that trust is there to be regained and retained, however hard a possible betrayal or deviation from a certain mindset may hit. In short, Hansel & Gretel is a pick 'n' mix of inspirational ideas both clever and captivating - for all ages. It's another Christmas triumph for Belfast's Lyric Theatre.

Simon Fallaha

Hansel & Gretel runs at Belfast's Lyric Theatre until Saturday January 6, 2024. For more information, and tickets, click here.