The Snow Queen (Park Theatre)

The Snow Queen is a classic tale for children by Hans Christian Andersen, and has been adapted for stage production on many occasions. It is also the basic inspiration for the Disney phonemenon that has become Frozen. Currently at the Park Theatre, this version by Charles Way brings the story up to date, with modern children and preoccupations, while still retaining the magic and mystery of the piece.

We first meet the narrator, who tells us how the Snow Queen built herself an ice palace and set up a mirror she could look in to feed her vanity. When the mirror shattered – and the atmospheric set design (by Gregor Donnelly, who also designed the costumes) is full of jagged pieces of wood, metal, and hanging shards which reflect the stage lighting – her heart grew cruel and envious.

Gerda is an intelligent child who reads books, and her friend Cei, who lives next door, is more friend than scholar. They have grown up together and each have lost a parent, which gives an extra frisson to the connection they feel to each other. When Cei changes personality and then disappears, everyone feels they must move on without him: but Gerda begins an adventure which is beautfully portrayed throughout the different scenes she encounters.

Esmonde Cole and Ayesha Casely-Hayford in The Snow Queen
Esmonde Cole and Ayesha Casely-Hayford in The Snow Queen

This Snow Queen was definitely a hit with the children in the audience, who were engrossed in the story throughout and brought into it from the start by the narrator breaking the fourth wall, and into both the snowball fight and a call and response routine with beach balls; in fact I would have liked to see more audience interaction encouraged throughout Gerda’s journey (one child did shout “wake up” at one crucial moment and another utilised the perennial panto refrain “behind you!”). Although the tale, like most of Andersen, is dark and has a lot going on below the surface, the element of comedy on stage, and the fact the protagonist is a child, makes this a very effective family show.

As the story progresses, I found elements of the Wicked Witch in Narnia, Snow White’s “Mirror on the Wall”, the traditional Christmas ghost story, Alice’s Wonderland, Dorothy’s trip to Oz, The Blue Bird, and even Kenny Everett (in the persona of the vain Daffodil as played by Jordan Brett). The writing and dialogue is sharp and the sound design (by James Nicholson) superb, with the different seasons brought to life and the Snow Queen’s constant intervention increasingly chilling.

There are songs by Christopher William Ash, but they are not that memorable or really needed (although a dual lullaby with Gerda’s grandma and Cei’s mother singing to the sleeping children in adjacent houses was nicely done, and the roses are summoned by a lilting melody). Puppet work by Christopher Barlow gives life to Bay the Reindeer, who got his own bow at the end of the show; Barlow is also responsible for the puppets I saw last week in Oi Frog and Friends.

Spring in The Snow Queen
Spring in The Snow Queen

Ayesha Casely-Hayford is very good indeed as Gerda, starting as a slightly clumsy but bookish child and ending up a centred young woman. This is a girl who continues to miss the steady presence of her mother, and who is navigating her transformation from a child with tottering feet. Esmonde Cole, in two roles as Cei and as Fred the Prince, was good in the former role as the cocky boy with a heart of gold, better in the latter, although I felt his teasing courtship of Gerda was a little out of place in the scenes of summer.

Paula James is good in her range of roles as Cei’s mother, the dozy Snowdrop, the changeable Princess, and the Robber Princess. Jordan Brett is excellent as Daffodil and Bay, and shows a touching transformation as Gerda’s Dad. Rounding out the cast are a friendly and efficient Sarah-Louise Young as The Storyteller, Mrs D and Gerda’s grandma, an energetic Matthew Cavendish as Robber Queen, Bindweed and John, and a steely Frances Marshall as the Snow Queen.

If I had one slight reservation about this production, it would be an unnecessary return of the cast to sing after the actual ending, which was performed with perfection. But I’ll forgive that for the joy the production brings, and the sense of the Christmas spirit it brings to the stage at the time it is sorely needed: the Park’s larger theatre looks suitably festive and at times stunning.

The Snow Queen is directed by Abigail Anderson, and continues at the Park Theatre until 4 January 2020. It may not be as spectacular as Frozen, but it is sure to delight both young and old, with a little bit of special magic as you exit the theatre.

Photo credits Manuel Harlan.

LouReviews received a complimentary ticket to see The Snow Queen.