Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale is a staple among Christmas shows, and little wonder. It reminds us that, rejoice as we might over snowy landscapes, ice and snow can be treacherous. It is a seasonal tale of transformation, of good triumphing over evil, love over selfishness and warmth over cold that offers opportunities for psychological readings – is it about growing-up? – and even ecological reflections.
But above all it contains the Snow Queen, the terrifying phenomenon of a woman composed of icy malignity – and a gift to costume designers.
At the Rose Theatre in Kingston, Mia Flodquist embraces this opportunity, creating a Snow Queen who is more icicle than woman: all glittering spikes and sparkling tulle. And in Sara Stewart’s elegant performance, she has a cool allure for the gullible young lad, Cei. The design is a strong feature of Natascha Metherell’s production: Su Blackwell’s simple, pretty set consists of paper cut-out trees and houses, the story literally springing out of the book.
Here Cei and Gerda are childhood friends whose natures complement one another: he (Zac Fox) is spontaneous, easy-going and dreamy; she (Bettrys Jones) is practical, anxious and, in Charles Way’s adaptation, suffers from panic attacks. Both have lost a parent and Cei’s rebellious imagination gets him into trouble at school. It is perhaps this independent streak, together with the onset of adolescence, that makes him easy prey for the Snow Queen.
All this, and Gerda’s subsequent heroic journey to save her friend, is narrated with clarity. The energy dips in places and the staging doesn’t quite convey the chilling power of the Snow Queen or the terrifying notion of permanent winter, but this is still a charming, droll and thoughtful production.
The surprise in Anupama Chandrasekhar’s reworking of the tale for the Unicorn Theatre is that it is set in India. This seems a crazy choice but it works surprisingly well. Gerda becomes Gowri (Amaka Okafor), who must travel from the warm south to the snow-topped Himalayas to rescue her friend Kumar (Ashley Kumar).
As often with Unicorn Christmas shows, this is a version full of psychological details and backstories – the imperious majesty (Nimmi Harasgama), for example, is grief-stricken for her lost son. Too terrified to give in to her sorrow, she has had a mirror created to keep herself selfish and immune to emotion.
The show is rather overcrowded with incident, so that you lose sight of the plot in places, and you do miss the frosty mystery of the original setting. But Rosamunde Hutt’s production is acted with flair and humour and can hold an audience of schoolchildren rapt from start to finish.
Rose Theatre, Kingston
Unicorn Theatre, London