Friday, 9 December 2016

'The Snow Queen' at Bristol Old Vic

Photo: Mark Douet

Steampunk cannibals, animatronic aristocracy and flower power. These are just a few of the styles in the Bristol Old Vic’s slightly sinister new show for winter 2016.

Inspired by the Hans Christian Anderson tale of the same name, The Snow Queen (directed by Lee Lyford) is set in an idyllic village where neighbouring children Kai and Gerda have grown up side by side to become the very best of friends, with their hearts as pure as the whitest snow.

But when the tranquility of the village is rocked by the devastating disappearance of child after child, Kai and Gerda are the last two remaining… and the villagers realise that the legend of the wicked Snow Queen (Gwyneth Herbert) - who feeds off the souls of naughty children - might be true after all. So when Kai (Steven Roberts) ultimately falls under the Snow Queen’s spell, Gerda (Emily Burnett) must set out on an adventure to find her friend and bring him home.

The inspired stage design by Tom Rogers is just fantastic - an imaginative and ever-changing combination of rural villages, spiky ice castles, psychedelic florals and more. And the use of projections (both pre-filmed and live) was delightful and effective. Continuing the trend for incorporating the onstage musicians as part of the show, composer Gwyneth Herbert was brilliant as a multi-instrumentalist, conductor and the commanding voice of the Snow Queen.

However, an absolute highlight was a song by a sad reindeer (Dylan Wood) who had lived his whole life in captivity, performed pitch perfectly in the style of The Smiths… although, slightly, depressingly, perhaps the inclusion of The Smiths in a Christmas family show is a nod to the fact that most people of our age are now old enough to be parents. Argh, I suddenly feel very grown up! But it was delivered magnificently and had me in stitches. Bravo.

Photo: Mark Douet
I loved the animatronic Snow Queen, I really did. As a terrifying and monstrous creation, the mammoth puppet (maybe 9ft tall?) was extremely effective. With a face like an alien, white spikes jutting out all over her and gaping holes through her huge ghostly rib cage, in silhouette she was even more frightening than when revealed. Fantastic! And bravo to her various puppet masters who controlled her excellently throughout, as well as designer Marc Parrett.

Another delight were the goblin scientists who worked the wicked Snow Queen’s magic for her… with the lead scientist Dr Boffin (Joanna Holden) inventing all kinds of gadgets to make the Snow Queen even more villainous. Dr Boffin’s sidekick Apprentice (Dylan Wood again) was the perfect foil for her scatty professor schtick. And my scientist friend in the audience reliably informed me that this was an exact recreation of the kind of shenanigans scientists get up to in the lab all day. Who am I to doubt this?

Although a little frightening in places for junior audience members (it may contain scenes of what DVDs euphemistically call “mild peril”), The Snow Queen is yet another Bristol Old Vic triumph. The annual Christmas show from this favourite theatre has become a highlight on the cultural calendar, but after the soaring heights of Swallows & Amazons and Peter Pan it has taken a few years for them to produce something good enough to match. While The Snow Queen is not quite up there with the dizzy heights of Peter Pan (surely the finest Christmas production ever?), it is the Bristol Old Vic’s strongest Christmas show for several years. Enjoy!

The Snow Queen is performed at Bristol Old Vic until January 15, 2017. For more information and to book tickets, please click here.