“Things are about to get weird,” said the cloud. She wasn’t wrong. The turtles, singing plants and militant owl confirmed that all right. Bristol Old Vic’s seasonal fun-fest, The Snow Queen turned a battery of bizarreness onto its audience, often to impressive effect. It contained, however, an insistently sadistic thread that ran counter to the traditional mid-December schmaltz: the consumption of dead bats, the torture of children, an anarchist-socialist revolt, kids suspended in freezers whilst an evil Queen consumed their thoughts… Merry Christmas!
It would be wrong, though, to portray director Lee Lyford’s The Snow Queen as downbeat. Despite the horrors, a tone of forced perkiness prevailed. Childhood besties Gerda and Kai inhabit a picturesque yet socially conservative utopia. The snow-flaky Kai’s fondness for show-tunes strains the parental affection. On the cusp of puberty Kai’s self-exploration coincides with the public emergence of the thoroughly malevolent Snow Queen, bent on global destruction of life and love. These two opposing forces explode when Gerda tentatively questions the appropriateness of Kai trying on a dress. He flees in hurt only to be captured by the Queen’s loyal goblins, piercing his loving heart with a shard of the Mirror of Opposite which gradually transforms his gentle nature to one of all consuming hate. And this all in the opening fifteen minutes.
In common with several flagship productions created for the Bristol Old Vic in 2016, a tendency to favour political over dramatic integrity makes this far less engaging than it otherwise might have been. So too an excessive running-time, stretching some creative ideas a little longer than necessary. The other consistency throughout the Old Vic’s 250th anniversary year, here reaching its zenith, is a formidable stagecraft – a seamless blend of old and new technology. As a visual spectacle it’s impossible to fault. The puppetry, something of a local strong suit, here designed and directed by Marc Parrett is spellbinding, the nightmarish outsized Queen a chilling creation. If only the same loving attention-to-detail was afforded the narrative.
It does not seem much of spoiler to disclose that Gerda’s journey of rescue is less a tale of derring-do than a psychological blossoming to a fully-fledged liberal outlook. Only when she learns to accept people without prejudice is she ready to save the world. The message is hammered home with the force of Mjölnir.
And such a message is hardly to be sneered at. Writer Vivienne Franzmann’s sincerity and commitment to a progressive social politics is in many ways heartening. But it is also easy. The intended audience will cheer to the echo a festive fuck-you to all things UKIPpy, Brexity, Trumpy. But this vision is entirely declarative – the happy ending is universal reconciliation to the core belief that being true to yourself is the primary good in life. Those for whom none of this is quite so simple are unlikely to find much persuasive here. There is, for instance, no interrogation of essentialist notions of self, much less that inherently individualistic identity politics are in tension with the kind of social cohesion which makes Gerda and Kai’s idealised unit possible – shouldn’t (best) friendship be able to survive differences of outlook?
If you can overlook (or better yet enthusiastically embrace) the blatant political overtones, there is a lot of fun to be had here. Joanna Holden’s head goblin is a winning performance, generating great comedic energy and even more impressive volume. Also commendable is Emily Burnett as Gerda, captivating and remarkably persuasive as an eleven year old. Despite the occasional end-of-term-play quality to the sound production (replete with what I can only imagine was unintentional blasts of feedback), Timothy X Atack’s sound design was neatly conceived. The Queen’s vocals by musical director Gwyneth Herbert must have been on the threshold of glass-shattering. The wider ensemble were also a credit to a bouncy score, at its best with the old school song-and-dance numbers (less so with some of its genre pastiches). The live musicianship was especially charming, the violin and accordion duo getting up close to the audience before the show and during the interval – strangely accompanied by charismatic Old Vic éminence grise Tom Morris, warmly observing in high-style, putting one in mind of a bohemian sloth.
Certainly this is not your common-or-garden Christmas show, and along the way to its irrepressible closing number, there is a visual feast of stagecraft. There are also some terrific and memorable moments. I applaud the Bristol Old Vic’s theatrical risk-taking. I just hope next year we might get some dramatic risk-taking too.
The Snow Queen is on until 15th January 2017 at the Bristol Old Vic. Click here for more details.