Rishard Beckett and Kimisha Lewis

Changing the Story: Behind the scenes of Hansel & Gretel

Posted on 4 April 2018

A powerhouse of Midlands talent is headed for the Belgrade Theatre this Easter when Birmingham Hippodrome tours its first ever home-produced show around the region. Coming to Coventry on Wednesday 11 and Thursday 12 April, The Twisted Tale of Hansel and Gretel offers an innovative reimagining of a familiar story, with quirky characters kicking back against fairytale conventions to offer their own version of events.

Presented in partnership with Open Theatre Company and Leicester’s Metro-Boulot-Dodo, this groundbreaking venture sees learning disabled performers take centre stage. And just like their strong-willed characters, these engaging and versatile actors are confronting the narratives around disability they’re often saddled with, breaking down perceived barriers to participation in the arts and telling the story from their own point of view.

Duck and Storyteller

“I think there are important resonances in the story of Hansel & Gretel,” says Richard Hayhow, director of Open Theatre Company, which works to support develop young actors with learning difficulties. “The idea of going and taking your kids to the forest and leaving them is quite a difficult one, but I think there are issues around feeling abandoned and isolated that are really resonant with learning disabled performers.”

Born out of a workshop-style project Hayhow organised in Coventry schools over a decade ago, the production has been a long time in the making. Not all of the performers involved in the finished show have disabilities, but it was crucial to his conception that all of them would not only have the freedom to respond creatively to the script on their own terms, but would also take an active role in shaping the story from the beginning as part of a semi-devised process. Each actor brings a little something of themselves to their various roles, and all of them are clearly thrilled to have the chance to exercise their creativity in an open and relaxed rehearsal space.

Luke Greenwood

“I’ve wanted to be an actor for twelve years now, and have mainly been doing voluntary and amateur dramatic stuff till now,” says Luke Greenwood, who doubles up as both the Chef and the children’s father. “This is my first professional show, so it’s a big change. It’s intense, definitely. Exciting, but nerve-wracking!”

“This is only my second professional play, and it’s the first one where I’m playing a lead role,” adds Nicky Priest, who plays the harried Storyteller that the rest of the characters rebel against. “The Storyteller is like an adorable control freak, who likes to think he’s in charge, when in reality nothing could be further from the truth!

“In a way he’s kind of like the glue that holds the show together, and to be given that trust and that opportunity – I actually feel really humbled and flattered that they would want to give me the part.”

Nicky Priest

“But you shouldn’t feel humbled, because you are actually a professional performer in your own right!” chips in director Esther Simpson, and she’s right – his first big role was in the RSC’s The Seven Acts of Mercy – impressive by any standards. “I’ve not given you this opportunity – you’ve taken it because you’re a fantastic performer,” she says.

For Vicki Taylor – whose “sneaky” and cheeky Duck makes a novel addition to the more familiar cast of characters – working with Open Theatre Company has been massively important both personally and professionally.

“I like acting because I like not being me for a bit and not having Vicki worries,” she explains. “When I’m acting, I can leave things like my autism and ADHD behind and become someone completely different. Obviously I don’t choose when certain things are triggered or not, but I think I can get into character really well, and when I’m in character, even if things aren’t going so good for me as Vicki, I can still perform as a child or a mother or even a duck!”

Vicki Taylor

Unlike the flustered Storyteller, the Duck really does have a handle on what’s going on, and is described by Simpson as being a sort of “secret director” on stage, communicating by means of written signs.

“She’s the one who instigates the set being changes, and is always one step ahead of the storyteller,” she says.

Of course, there are challenges to face with this production that are unique to learning disabled performers, but these are not necessarily as straightforward as you might expect. One of the biggest changes for Taylor has been, “feeling accepted, which might sound really strange, but it’s something I’m not used to. Learning to trust people when they think I need a break and to take one is quite hard when you struggle with trusting people.”

Rishard Beckett

In its current incarnation, the show has been in development for around two years, with actors such as Rishard Beckett brought on board early in the research process. Best known to Coventrians for his involvement in the City of Culture campaign, and as one half of the creative duo Rishard and Richard, his smiling face is plastered on the hoarding up near Coventry train station – making him one of the first things that visitors to the city see when they arrive.

“It’s going to be packed out at the Belgrade!” he says, grinning confidently.

Nor is he the only Cov kid involved: both of the title roles are taken by local stars, with Kimisha Lewis (Strictly Arts, EGO Performance Company) appearing as his big sister Gretel. Hers is a rather different interpretation of the character to the one we might be more accustomed to, however…

Kimisha Lewis and Rishard Beckett

“I think the storyteller is set on Gretel being very weepy and not knowing what to do, and always looking to the man for support,” Lewis explains. “Whereas this Gretel is very much like, ‘But I don’t cry and I’m not scared of anything – I actually quite like the forest and the dark!’ She also has this big anthem to sing which is very Aretha Franklin!”

Music is an important component of the show, with instrumentation provided by Charles Craggs, who has worked with The Fabularium, Talking Birds, Theatre Absolute and Stan’s Café, as well as being a founding member of Belgrade Springboard Company Noctium Theatre. In Hansel & Gretel, he appears in the guise of the Mockingbird, who follows the Storyteller on his journey through the woods.

Charles Craggs

“It’s been a great learning experience, and I feel like I’m now much better equipped if I ever end up working with people with learning disabilities again. It’s been interesting getting to grips with all the other guys and learning what makes them tick…”

Case in point: this particular turn of phrase immediately requires an explanation for one of his fellow performers.

“I have had to really think about what I say sometimes, because I have a lot of phrases that have really thrown Vicki,” he says. “It could be something we say every day, but she’ll take it very literally, so one challenge has been learning how to rephrase things and how to… not exactly ‘deal with’, but…”

“Understand?” offers Priest.

“Understand. Thank you, yes, that’s a better word,” Craggs agrees.

Hansel and Gretel full cast

The Twisted Tale of Hansel and Gretel runs at the Belgrade Theatre Wednesday 11 and Thursday 12 April. Tickets are available to book now.