Festive 20/21ReviewSouth East

The Snow Queen – Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

Reviewer: Alice Fowler

Writer: Hans Christian Andersen

Adaptor: Nick Stafford

Director: Joanna Read

Musical Director: Ben Occhipinti

What joy to sink into a red plush theatre seat after so long. The Yvonne Arnaud – like other theatres in areas where restrictions permit – has pulled out from the hat a Christmas show. In place of its usual rumbustious pantomime, we have The Snow Queen, directed by the Yvonne Arnaud’s director and chief executive, Joanna Read.

Adapted by Nick Stafford from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy-tale, the show follows the blossoming friendship between two children, Gerda and Kai. But darker forces are at work. Three trolls have an enchanted mirror, which makes those who look in it see ugliness instead of beauty, despair instead of hope. When the mirror smashes, its fragments fly around the world, entering the eyes and hearts of many, including Kai.

Kai (Lewis Bruniges) no longer looks fondly at Gerda (Matilda Tucker). Instead, he is drawn to the malevolent Snow Queen (Helena Antoniou) in her kingdom in the frozen north. When the queen holds Kai with her, Gerda sets off on a quest to find her friend.

The Snow Queen is said to have inspired Disney’s Frozen, as well as Edmund’s seduction in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. In this familiar fairy-tale terrain, we all have Gerda firmly in our hearts.

There is much to like in the Yvonne Arnaud’s production. Tucker is a poised and winning heroine, with enough grit to see her through. Eric Stroud as narrator bridges the gap between audience and stage, often stepping into the action himself. There are moments of real theatrical magic, notably in the swirling, churning snow storm – cleverly created by lighting designer Hannah Walker – which the Snow Queen conjures to keep Gerda at bay.

Wonderful musical accompaniment comes from composer and musical director Ben Occhipinti who, from one side of the stage, thumps the piano keys or whispers on his drum. Designer Nancy Surman’s simple set of two pale step ladders works well.

The show is billed to appeal in particular to ages four to eleven. Like all Hans Christian Andersen’s tales, The Snow Queen has an edge. A sinister old woman in her flower garden, for example (Rosa Hesmondhalgh, who plays a multitude of roles), tries to persuade Gerda to stay with her.

All children watching should know enough to stay away. But what are they to make of the dancing robbers with deep south accents, who sing of their murderous exploits with large knives in their hands? As an adult, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh – or not. Two crows, which sometimes speak, sometimes just say ‘Caw’, also left me non-plussed.

In the strange times we live in, it’s tempting to see the mirror’s shards that change our vision as a metaphor for depression. Certainly, at the moment, loyal friends like Gerda are needed more than ever.

With theatrical star-dust in short supply, I wanted The Snow Queen to charm, bewitch and dazzle. What I saw wasn’t quite enough to melt this frozen heart.

Runs until 24 December 2020

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