Shiona Morton was writer on attachment at Bristol Old Vic in 2009. Since then, she’s written The Company of Wolves, an award-winning play based on the wolf stories of Angela Carter, in which the audience are runners or walkers. Its dark poetry and fairytale themes have made their way into a more traditional studio setting with Hansel at Salisbury Playhouse, which won the Theatre Fest West 2017 Writers’ Prize.
Frankie Bradshaw’s set is spectacular, gorgeously built totally from planks. Slatted timber floors and walls are painted in crumbling pale blues, greens and browns. Emerging from the floor, two trees arch over us pin-pointed with homely lamps. More planks hang from the ceiling with newspaper birds, toy planes and upturned umbrellas twirling. On stage, Edith’s clutter is collected around a doll’s house and farmer’s kitchen table. For a set that’s in part the home of a hoarder with early signs of dementia, it’s almost too beautiful.
From stage to story, Hansel has a run down, west country rugged beauty. A grown-up daughter, Viv, played by Zara Ramm, helps clear and clean her mother’s house every three months. She is country elegance that’s escaped to the city wearing straight leg, high waisted jeans and smart pastel striped shirts. Ramm gives her a plummy mixture of straight-talking efficacy and heartfelt protective instinct. We watch layers of memory and unsaid truths unveil, as past regrets break through Edith’s (Elizabeth Counsell) grouchy facade. There’s more to their troubled relationship than Viv’s efficient tidying. It takes a boy sleeping rough in the woods to make a clearing for each of their deeper hurts to be spoken.
The boy is cast a little too old in the shape of the Lee Rufford, who functions in the story as a reminder of another lost boy. Our boy is without a home craving the light in the window of Edith’s house. He wants hot chocolate and one night’s sleep inside. Left behind by social services (he’s now too old), a touching relationship has developed between him and Edith. She gives out sandwiches and biscuits while he helps with her fading memory and encroaching loneliness.
Up to that point it’s almost Romantic. He’s a mythical lost boy; a wood nymph; a storyteller climbing the trees in pastoral escape. He sleeps in the beautiful woods, which seems kind of fine, like a camping trip. (But we know it’s totally not fine.) And then it spits him out into the world of reality without at all facing what those consequences will be. Viv’s instinct is to call the police (why?), or put him on a train (to where?), rather than contacting a charity. I feel like Morton uses this boy in the worst sense of the world to serve the story of a middle class mother and daughter. The boy is a spokesperson for the metaphorical language of the play but the weak link character in our trio.
He wants what Viv and Edith have with a frightening desperation that’s almost vampiric and some of his outbursts are super creepy: “That house owes me, fat and full and warm.” He’s angrily obsessed with the fact Edith is feeding him out of guilt, stingily with cheap coffee and tinned fish, like a cat. I want to feel total empathy for him, for his plight, even though he’s cruel and two-faced in the way he speaks about Viv and Edith. I like that he’s rounded in this way even if it feels a bit false. So why aren’t his aspirations three dimensional too? Why doesn’t he ask them for help beyond a hot drink and a sofa for the night? For help getting set up? Why doesn’t he tell Edith and Viv his aspirations? He calls Edith a friend. I never really connected with his motivations. I think there’s something a bit problematic there in the depiction of someone who’s homeless, given how much spite and misunderstanding people sleeping rough already face.
At its best, Jo Newman’s Hansel is an affecting depiction of broken families, memories of mistakes, mothers and daughters and lost boys. It’s about about the things we hoard and hold onto because we can’t let something else go. The dialogue between mother and daughter is amusing and relatable. Sometimes, though, the boy’s character is a little too lost.
Photos: Craig Fuller