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“I’m scared,” piped up a small voice from the auditorium during the Little Angel Theatre’s production of The Snow Queen. The owner of that small voice was right: of all the fairy tales on offer over the Christmas period, The Snow Queen is one of the most disturbing. The story of Kai, a young boy stolen and frozen in ice by a heartless queen, draws on primordial fears of nature’s power.
The best version I have ever seen was a BBC film screened last Christmas. It caught the eerie beauty of this chilling tale and the dread at the heart of it, depicting a time and place where a child might freeze to death, where it’s possible to believe that the icy grip of winter might never loosen its hold.
It’s difficult to convey that fear to an audience of London children, particularly at a time when the concern tends to flow in the opposite direction. Indeed, an invitation to the audience to blow on the Snow Queen and melt her icy domain may almost seem ecologically unsound.
Of these two Snow Queens on the London stage this Christmas it is the puppet version at the Little Angel that comes nearest to evoking that fear. Peter Glanville’s production is simple and pretty, playing the action out on an icy blue extension of the stage, while the back of the stage remains the Snow Queen’s world, crowned by a palace of icicles. Once Kai has been spritied away, he appears upstage every now and then, suspended mid-air as if trapped in an ice-cube.
The two new marionettes, Kai and Gerda, are particularly lovely. The script (Sian Jones) needs attention, though. It’s pretty flat and key moments, particularly in the first half, are underwritten and underplayed. Kai’s disappearance, for instance, comes over as a matter of mild concern for Gerda, rather than deep panic. But the performance picks up in the second half, when the story is better told, the dramatic tension is increased, and some amusing penguins offer light relief (though parents may have to spend some of the journey home explaining that penguins and polar bears only inhabit the same hemispherein children’s Christmas shows).
The Theatre Royal Stratford East has – wisely, perhaps, given the climate change issue – placed more emphasis on the psychological interpretation of the tale. Here the story explains both adolescence (want to know why your darling child has transformed into a sullen monster overnight? Blame the Snow Queen) and teenage delinquency (Kai, an unloved child with a largely absent father, is an easy target for a Snow Queen looking for a heart to harden). For Kai (Craig Storrod), it’s cool to be cold.
This is interesting, giving older audience members something to get their teeth into and the writer, Hope Massiah, licence for some nicely witty lines. “Some boys can be a bit of a puzzle,” sighs Gerda’s granny. “Others are a complete mystery.” The show is, as so often at this address, extremely pretty: Jenny Tiramani’s set features sweeping curtains of icicles, a dazzling white sleigh and stiffly frozen fir trees. And there are strong performances as well: Michael Bertenshaw makes a very droll, yodelling dame and Tiffany Graves a splendidly cruel Snow Queen.
There are problems with the show, though. I could cheerfully have fed the Snow Queen’s unfunny troll henchmen to a passing polar bear, and too many uncatchy songs hold up the action. This stop-start progress dulls the edge of the drama. Dawn Reid’s production has lots of enjoyable moments, but it doesn’t really strike a chill.
‘The Snow Queen’, Little Angel Theatre, London. Tel 020 7226 1787. ‘The Snow Queen’, Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London. Tel 0800 183 1188