I remember when I was about 6, the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle bought me two old books of fairy tales from a second hand bookshop. One was by Hans Christian Andersen – because she was always taken with the beautiful sorrow of The Little Match Girl – and the other was by the Brothers Grimm. They were both Victorian books and full of grand old illustrations. I loved the Grimm stories because they had such memorable characters and twisted stories like Rumpelstiltskin; I always found the Andersen stories rather tame by comparison. Both books are now, sadly, long gone; and when I saw that this year’s Royal and Derngate Christmas play was to be The Snow Queen, I confess I couldn’t bring to mind anything about the story at all.
Of course, that doesn’t matter in order to appreciate this highly entertaining production, because the R&D Christmas plays always work wonders in the storytelling department, and this is no exception to the rule. Georgia Pritchett’s adaptation has simplified many of Andersen’s plot intricacies. Central to the tale is the partnership of best friends Gerda and Kai, who gets entrapped by the Snow Queen, herself desperate to find her own son that the wicked troll took. As his faithful pal, Gerda devotes herself to finding Kai, here with the help of a raven, a reindeer and a Gorbals Headbutter of a Red Riding Hood. Along the way they also meet Sleeping Beauty and her prince, waiting for Happy Ever After to kick in, and a wicked witch with a cake fixation. At times it feels as though you’ve wondered into a side plot of Into The Woods, as various fairy tale characters weave in and out of the story. I understand that the original fairy tale of the Snow Queen is the inspiration for Disney’s Frozen, which I also haven’t seen; so if you’re hoping that I will make any insightful links between the two, you’ll be sadly disappointed.
The play begins with a rather dark and gloomy explanation of why the Snow Queen had become the wicked character that she is, losing her child to the villainous troll, so that she must obey his wishes in order to get her child back. You could say she was more sinned against than sinning, thereby showing that no one (well, nearly no one?) is completely evil. But as her need to regain her missing son gets stronger and stronger, so does her ruthless cruelty. The Snow Queen will only get him back if she can find a child who willingly comes to the Snow Palace; and as she has forced Kai there against his will, he doesn’t fit the bill. However, if he stays, and Gerda willingly comes to rescue him…. The plot thickens. Will Gerda find Kai and be reunited again, or will she fall into the Snow Queen’s trap and never be seen again? Well, obviously, I’m not going to tell you that.
For a fairy tale really to work, you have to take the element of evil seriously. It’s not like a pantomime, where the villains are – well, pantomime villains actually. It would be no good having the Snow Queen merely another incarnation of Cinderella’s Ugly Sisters or Aladdin’s Abanazar. She’s genuine human flesh and blood, with a tortured mind needing to take that step from abused to abuser. However, as a result of all that serious scene-setting, making the audience appreciate the evil of the Snow Palace, there’s not a lot of fun to be had in the first fifteen or so minutes. To be honest I found the start of the play rather stodgy and worthy. Even once we’ve had our introduction to the characters of Gerda and Kai, I found I didn’t really warm to them much at first, despite the excellent efforts of the actors. I think the change of mood from a rather pompous and portentous opening to just a couple of kids goofing around was too strong and sudden to feel real.
Poor Kai, though. He really gets a rough deal in this play. Separated from his playpal early on and doomed to spend the next hour and a half in solitary deep freeze, I can’t imagine it’s a very rewarding role to play. Nevertheless, Jonny Weldon certainly brings the character of Kai to life and makes his plight particularly moving in the second act. Mona Goodwin rises to the challenge of making Gerda likeable, as the character’s a bit stiff and starchy at first, making her perhaps not instantly appealing. There are elements of Alice in Wonderland in her characterisation as she tries to make both adults and animals alike see sense; and as the drama progresses you genuinely fear for her safety in her quest to take back Kai. As the Snow Queen herself, Caroline Head lets you see both sides of her character: ruthless and cruel when it comes to teasing Kai, but essentially a devastated mother, desperate for the return of her long lost child. Would it have felt just a little more exciting if the Queen had been more of a villain and less of a victim? Possibly. But then this play has much more complexity than your average pantomime.
There were two comic performances that absolutely lit up the stage and frankly made you laugh your head off whenever the actors came on. Tosin Olomowewe as the Raven had a mischievous twinkle and a knowing wink, a damn high opinion of himself, wonderful comic timing and an instant rapport with the audience. It did help that Georgia Pritchett had given him nearly all the best lines; but I really loved his performance. The other star turn was from Richard Pryal as a gay and totally unselfconscious Rudolph, whose sole in ambition in life is to take charge of Santa’s sleigh (he’s a real fan, you’ll notice) and if it can be done whilst enjoying the company of muscly men, all the better. There are also excellent performances by Angela Bain as the Witch, and by Mairi Barclay as the Robber Maiden and the Princess still waiting for her Happy Ever After. And a big mention to Ti Green’s set – you’ve never seen such magic icicles!
Whilst there are a few longueurs (especially at the beginning), once the humour and the quirky characters have taken over, it’s a charming and funny tale engagingly told in the best tradition of the Royal Theatre’s Christmas play. On until 3rd January!