The Snow Queen (Park Theatre)

The Snow Queen (Park Theatre, until January 4th)

⭐⭐⭐⭐

A warm-hearted adaptation of a frosty fairy tale classic will lift the chill from even the iciest soul with the Park Theatre’s genial Christmas show.

Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen is probably best known these days through the sugar-coated but splendid Disney film version, Frozen, but this fresh stage production doesn’t even suggest anyone is letting it go and a cheeky “do you want to build a snowman?” is more likely to be met with a glacial glare.

Charles Way’s adaptation goes back to the original story, which is in many ways a harsher coming of age tale, yet makes the whole thing entirely family-friendly and almost cuddly – for goodness’ sake, there’s even a knitting adviser on the production team!

Here a young girl, plagued by a lack of confidence since the death of her mother, finds herself on a courageous quest to save her friend from next door who has been kidnapped by the evil Snow Queen (a fearsomely frigorific Frances Marshall), to help her restore a broken mirror in her Ice Palace so she can unleash permanent winter.

The girl, Gerda (beautifully played by Ayesha Casely-Hayford with a likeable down-to-earthness) journeys through the four seasons – the roses of spring, a summer of love, autumnal robbers and the Snow Queen’s icy domain – to effect the rescue and it is satisfying that the book’s original theme of facing adversity and growing through it is so well maintained.

Director Abigail Anderson utilises the seven performers well as most portray a series of different characters and there’s enough good-natured energy from each of them to thaw an iceberg. While some of the darkly horrific is edited out, this is a long way from being saccharine treatment of an unsettling fairytale but it is likely that the very young will be gripped rather than too scared thanks to the regular light touches.

It’s all rather weird and wonderful and at times it is hard not to be reminded of the insanity of Alice in Wonderland such are the larger than life characters and situations encountered. But the production is unafraid to portray pure evil (the Snow Queen fiercely threatens death while the robbers in the forest are unashamedly cannibalistic) instead of making the villainy too pantomimesque.

The cast effortlessly create instantly lovable characters. There’s Esmonde Cole’s captured Cei, the nice boy next door transformed by a shard of ice in his eye; Cole also plays a posh prince with a heart. Paula James has a terrific collection of characters including a vain princess, a feisty robber girl, a snoring snowdrop and Cei’s homely mum. Justin Brett displays impeccable comic timing as he shifts between Gerda’s strict father, an adorable reindeer and the delightfully narcissistic daffodil. Sarah-Louise Young delights as the devious queen of the spring garden, Gerda’s wise grandmother and an earnest friend of the princess, while Matthew Cavendish excels as a military bindweed and an alarming robber queen.

Gregor Donnelly’s simple set is both spectacular and effective: plenty of wood, perhaps referencing the Scandinavian origins, is quickly switched to become the mirror in the Ice Palace for example, and each of the seasons in Gerda’s epic journey is presented with deceptive ease. The story calls for a move from city housing estate to a snowy landscape drenched by Northern Lights and these are all created perfectly.

The costumes are a joy, no more so than the clever use of knitwear (Stephen West is properly credited as knitting designer and advisor) and Christopher Barlow’s wonderfully made Bae the reindeer.

While there are songs these are few and far between. Christopher James Ash’s music never overpowers the action and many of the punchy numbers are performed unaccompanied but the composition always has a presence and purpose.

Following on from last year’s seasonal hit production of Peter Pan the Park can once again lay claim to staging one of the best small-scale seasonal shows as an alternative to traditional panto. With Frozen 2 drawing the young audiences at cinemas, what better time to go back to the source with this charming take on a timeless fairytale favourite. Sit back and let it glow!

David Guest

Images: Manuel Harlan

A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub http://www.thereviewshub.com/

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