It might be early days, with things still getting their skates on, but this version of The Snow Queen at the Polka Theatre is yet to warm up. Currently, although full of energy and talent, the production feels confused and lacking in clarity.
Traditionally, this Hans Christian Andersen classic is a sparkling, punchy tale of thrilling adventure. Little Gerda boldly journeys across frozen plains to find her best friend Kai, who has been made unkind by a fragment of magic mirror, before being lured away by an unfeeling Snow Queen to her icy palace. Gerda encounters intriguing characters and peril as she battles to save him, teaching them bravery, loyalty and friendship and firing us up with magic and excitement. Sadly, I don’t feel that is what emerges from this production.
If there’s one story that could handle a load of glitter and sparkle, it’s the frosty Snow Queen. Here, however, our two protagonists Gerda (Rebecca Wilson) and Kai (Finlay McGuigan) exist in a world where the ice cream flavours are three types of vanilla, and that speaks somewhat towards the show too, which errs on the side of darkly dramatic, lifted only occasionally by sprinkles of confused but joyful singing and dancing. It’s a wordy storytelling piece that rewrites the original to speak differently about the interpretation of the Snow Queen (Phoebe Naughton) and the difficulties of growing up with people judging you. This is no bad thing, but it’s generally a bit obscure and hard to follow.
The book’s extensive adventure across wild lands is lost as we’re confined to a small section of an ancient wood. There is sadness, misunderstanding and trauma in several of the characters, which results in a noticeable amount of un-cheery grumbling. Gerda’s heroic journey does little to introduce elements of warmth and comfort and doesn’t really provide distinct demonstrations of negative emotions being overcome in the context of more positive, understanding behaviours.
Although the cast are clearly very talented, particularly when singing and dancing (I’d love to see Joe Boylan do a cabaret!), I found it difficult to reconcile the characterisation. Why did Grandma (Paula James) not rip off her cardi to expose her Ramones-t-shirt-wearing, rock ‘n’ roll self beneath? Why were she and Snow Queen left nameless? I didn’t know why we were in a forest talking with trees, nor why the trees had pipes on their heads. I still have no idea why we met a group of flowers or why they sang about horses.
The design is lovely in its detail, with beautiful icicles, snow flurries and books, but it cuts corners elsewhere: Snow Queen’s sleigh is an unimaginative box drawn in light on the floor. There are occasional magical flourishes, including a wonderful foil drop, but my sense was that even this moment buried spoken plot points, as the distracted audience scrabbled under their seats to pick the bits up, so sense was lost.
The songs aren’t entirely memorable and are few and far between. When there is opportunity for the audience to join in, the lyrics are overly complex and confusing. It felt like the children were desperate for an opportunity to clap along, but these moments weren’t clearly signalled so didn’t happen.
However, it’s still November, so there may yet be mileage in the journey to the ice palace. Currently, I have to say, for a Christmas production this Snow Queen needs to embrace the sparkle of winter rather than the cold, letting us see more of the fun and friendship that conquers frost.
Based on the story by: Hans Christian Andersen
Written by: Jude Christian
Directed by: Emma Baggott
Design by: Laura Ann Price
Co-Composed & Sound Design by: Alexandra Faye Braithwaite
Co-Composed by: Sophie Galpin
Lighting Design by: Laura Howard
Props by: Tim Sykes
Musical Direction by: Lauren Dyer
The Snow Queen is aimed at ages 6-12 years and runs until Sunday 21 January. Further information and bookings can be found here.