Writer: Vivienne Franzmann
Composer, Lyricist and Musical Director: Gwyneth Herbert
Director: Lee Lyford
Reviewer: Chris Oldham
Christmas at the Old Vic is typically a classy affair, with no expense spared bringing anything from a beloved, to a lesser-known fairy tale to life. Visually at least, this year’s telling of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen more than fits the bill.
It’s the story of Gerda (Emily Burnett) and Kai (Steven Roberts), childhood best friends who grow up together in the idyllic Village of the Yellow Roses. Their peaceful existence is shattered one day when the children of the village begin to disappear one by one after arguing with their parents or having a tantrum. It’s all the doing of a sinister army of goblins, who are taking them far away to the palace of the Snow Queen who survives by feasting on their bad thoughts. When the goblins kidnap Kai, Gerda sets off on a mission to find him.
Central to the production’s appeal is its design, in particular Tom Rogers’ sets, which transport us from quaint villages, to post-apocalyptic hideouts, to palaces made of ice. In turn, Marc Parrett’s puppetry design and direction are inspired. There are hints of what’s to come as we watch puppet-sized versions of Gerda and Kai operated by the company taking their tentative first steps, and Kai beginning to climb trees, but nothing prepares for the unveiling of the Snow Queen herself. Towering, terrifying and voiced by the sublime musical director Gwyneth Herbert – also in command of many of the instruments alongside her fellow musicians Branko and Faith Ristic – she is a chilling creation from top to toe.
It’s a real shame then, that although the story of overcoming fear to protect someone you love is universal in its appeal, it’s frustratingly unclear as to who the show is actually pitched at. There’s plenty of humour for the grown-ups to engage with, particularly in character cameos – Jessica Hayles’ Parrot, Dylan Wood’s Anton the Reindeer, and the fabulously random unveiling of Miltos Yerolemou’s flamboyant Flower Witch, all wedge-heels and beard-garden, all deserving of longer on stage. But they sit uncomfortably alongside banter and clap-along songs about poo, farts, and being best friends forever.
While act one does a neat job of alluding to issues of conformity, identity, and sexuality without being too heavy-handed, act two seems to check any subtlety at the bar during the interval. And while some lessons are left to the imagination – be naughty, kids, and an evil Snow Queen will eat your brain – others are far more clumsy. One scene in particular when the Queen of the Sun (Zara Ramm) spells out every single lesson Gerda has learned on her journey feels like it could have been left in the draft stages altogether.
Determined to try and please everyone at some point, The Snow Queen could benefit from a lighter touch and a more even tone. As it stands it’s still very much a feast for the eyes. But while a festive reminder to be positive, kind, and accepting of others is never to be sniffed at, it’s worth remembering that kids can be a lot smarter than we think too.
Runs until 15 January 2017 | Image: Marc Douet