The set alone is a source of wonder. Paper artist, Su Blackwell, in her first design project for the stage has created a delicate, wintry world of trees, cottages and lampposts that appear to have been snipped from the pages of a paperback. Black lettering nests against white, making an apt and charming backdrop for Charles Way’s adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy story.
Young Gerda is a nervy girl, prone to panic attacks and terrified of her bad-tempered schoolmaster father, Mr Overskou. When her classmates take turns to dance in front of one another, she can’t bring herself to join in and her best friend Cei has to calm her down. Though Cei and Gerda have been friends and playmates all their lives, Mr Overskou disapproves of the boy’s dreamy ways and forbids them to see one another; it is then that Cei falls under the Snow Queen’s spell. A shard of mirror pierces his heart and he becomes cold and cruel before being whisked off to the Queen’s winter palace and forced to piece together the shattered fragments of her magic mirror. But though the townspeople believe Cei to have drowned, Gerda refuses to accept this and sets off to find him.
Way’s adaptation has Gerda travel through the changing seasons with winter forever on her tail. In spring she encounters talking flowers and a secateurs-wielding gardener; in summer she encounters a gaggle of Hooray Henry types and in autumn she encounters a robber gang and an ageing reindeer. There’s much wit and invention in the visual detail (umbrellas turn into autumn leaves, paper butterflies alight on paper trees, billowing white fabric is used to create a downhill sleigh ride) and some gentle humour in the writing. Gerda grows slowly in confidence and strength as the story progresses, declining to give up her red boots to the spoilt Sloaney teen princess and taking on the robber queen in a dance contest, but the production doesn’t overplay her emotional growth and this aspect of the writing is handled with a pleasingly light touch.
If anything Natascha Metherell’s production is too gentle and sedate. It has its moments of comedy and its moments of chill but there are a few too many slack patches that cause outbreaks of fidgeting amongst the younger members of the audience. Sara Stewart’s towering, ice-eyed Snow Queen is also the source of some genuine cries of alarm and, in one child’s case, a fountaining of frightened, urgent tears. The production seems better pitched at slightly older children than at the very young.
Some strong performances help compensate for occasional failings in pace. Bettrys Jones is compelling as Gerda, her initial anxiety and fretfulness slowly transforming into maturity and strength, and there is some good support from Michael Matus as the menacing Mr Overskou (who also cameos as a decidedly camp daffodil) and Deirdra Morris as the archetypal kindly, wise grandmother. What’s missing, despite all its considerable polish, is any real emotional tug or genuine sense of peril; it’s all a little too neat and tidy and lacks the wild fringes of the best children’s theatre.