It’s been another great year for Chris Thorpe. The smart, dense but slightly austere brilliance of There Has Possibly Been an Incident was balanced by the warm paean to human communication of I Wish I Was Lonely. It’s topped off by a weird and wild Christmas show that scrambles the wobbly high-concept charm of a Sylvester McCoy Doctor Who episode with a big sloppy smooch for the power of story-telling.
Luka (Assad Zaman) was the little boy lost in a deep, dark wood until he was found and adopted by the story-catchers, an oddball gang of interdimensional yarn-stitchers who protect the earth from destruction with a kind of ozone layer of imagination. That makes the heart of winter a busy time for them, as people gather in the dark and the cold to tell stories. There’s been an accident with the boisterous Johann’s (Gary Kitching) new invention, the Fabricator, and it’s threatening to let evil forces from another dimension rush into our world where they’ll presumably do something very, very bad.
It’s a bit confusing, if you hadn’t spotted that, and Thorpe seems to have a little trouble keeping the story together in the first act. It’s never entirely clear how the story-catchers work, where they’ve come from, or who the reverberant hell-dimension voices really are, let alone where Luka fits into all of this, but it’s loaded with charm and a genuine freshness that feels neither saccharine nor loaded with irony. The Doctor Who comparison isn’t an idle one; from the TARDIS-a-like Fabricator through the glowing crack that appears in the universe to Garance Marneur’s Maplins-punk costume design, that spirit of uncompromising, unpatronising space fantasy is everywhere.
Thorpe has developed the story-catchers among admirably original lines, avoiding clichÃ©s and creating a gang who share a warm and unconventional friendship. The female characters, Lily and Mila, are particularly impressive and offer punchy, exciting role models that are a world away from the pantomime princess. It helps that both Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen are such strong and likeable performers, proving excellent matches for Kitching’s kilt-wearing scientist and Paul Charlton’s pen-pushing Wil. Zaman makes an excellent lead, dislocated both from his world and the cheerful story-catching group.
This is director Lorne Campbell’s first Christmas show at Northern Stage, following his assumption of the artistic director role earlier in the year, and though the story slips away from him a little in the first hour, by the climax he’s ensured Dark Woods, Deep Snow doesn’t forget to warm your heart while it’s romping about through space and time.
Despite the spectacle of Marneur’s sylvan set-design and Joanna Holden’s crowd-pleasing turn as a cackling witch who forgets which story she’s in, this is probably a Christmas show for slightly older children. The cross-dimensional terrors are a booming tax on the sound system, and it’s not the easiest of plots to follow. There’s also disappointingly little to show for the brill RashDash’s involvement, with only a few short movement scenes that, truthfully, could have been added by just about anyone.
So there are disappointments in the woods, but there’s also genuine magic, and it’s a thrill to close the year in the company of one of Britain’s most exciting, formally inventive writing talents.