First published in The Times, Monday December 16 2019
Stage adaptations of The Snow Queen are a staple of the festive season, but Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of friendship overcoming adversity is almost unrecognisable in Mark Calvert’s production for Northern Stage. Even the title character (played by Elizabeth Carter) is reduced to a cameo appearance.
Laura Lindow’s adaptation locates Andersen’s simple quest tale within an enlarged canvas, lingering on the residents of Stifle-on-Sea, a buttoned-up, inward-looking community, embodied by the gruff teacher, Elsie Orr (Paula Penman). There is an interesting analogy here with Brexit Britain but it feels artificially bolted on rather than seamlessly woven into the main narrative.
Pic: Pamela Raith
We have to wait a while for the growing friendship between Gerda (Lauren Waine) and Kai (Gregor Mackay) to emerge as a focal point. Their scenes together are so endearing that you really feel the wrench of their enforced separation. In contrast, the characters Gerda encounters on her journey north, including wildlings and singing, dancing flowers, are a little underdeveloped. Carter’s characterisation of the Snow Queen as a misguided, friendless child is compelling but her appearances are frustratingly few and far between.
In its style, Calvert’s production is as full of beans as his 1920s-set version of A Christmas Carol from last year. Members of the ensemble whizz around the large, multi-levelled stage (designed by Rhys Jarman) on bicycles and scooters. The cast rubs shoulders with some beautifully rendered puppets, including an enormous reindeer that carries Gerda through the frozen wastes.
Pic: Pamela Raith
As is customary for a Northern Stage Christmas show, the musical numbers, composed and staged by Jeremy Bradfield with Dr G. Hannabiell Sanders, are dynamic, with the actors taking turns on an array of instruments. The big musical set pieces and visual spectacle contribute to the overall air of an epic pageant. The show is not without its charms but all the hustle and bustle does sometimes make you long for the spine-tingling atmosphere, subversive characterisation and laser-like narrative focus of Andersen’s fairy tale.