Sunday, November 27, 2022

The Snow Queen – a rescue mission, a voyage of discovery, and a tussle between duty and belonging (Lyric Theatre until 31 December)

With an initial townscape that wouldn’t look out of place for a production of Mamma Mia, it’s Just Another Day in the Sun in Blomsterby according to the lyrics of The Snow Queen’s energetic opening number and the golden sunshine falling over the houses. Bookish Gerda (Calla Hughes Nic Aoidh) – can I pause to appreciate how much a bookish ten year old Alan would have been impressed with a character who never rarely sets down their book throughout a two hour show! – is well informed about the world around her. But she’s never stepped outside her town.

Her childhood friend Kai (Ben McGarvey) is increasingly consumed by wanderlust, wanting to visit the places around the world to which he dispatches orders for the town’s flowers. Gerda’s grandmother Rose (Christina Nelson) has green fingers, and a big family secret that she has held off sharing with Gerda. But when the cold wind of the Snow Queen (Ruby Campbell) blows from the north, her revelation sends Gerda off on a journey that will test her sense of belonging and duty while ascertaining her power to bring about change.

The Snow Queen has a strong ensemble cast. Aaron Halliwell and Darren Franklin – he’s back on the Lyric main stage just a few weeks after spending a month floating above it while playing the troubled photographer in Conor Mitchell’s Propaganda – occupy the sides of the stage, augmenting the Paul Boyd’s rich backing tracks with live percussion, guitars and keys. And if you’re sitting back a bit from the front rows, you’ll catch all kinds of gestures and humorous reactions to the main action. 

It’s particularly refreshing to see a Christmas show that has been written with three female leads. Nelson has a much more central role in this year’s show – playing three sisters, each holding an ever-more elaborate and outlandish staff. Nic Aoidh’s duet with Halliwell (The Girl Who Had Stars in her Eyes) is a vocal highpoint in the show. Meanwhile, Ruby Campbell switches from being a girl-about-town in early scenes to become the titular villain, dressed in cool flamboyant white, yet trapped in her position rather than being simply evil. Campbell’s voice and gestures carry across the stage, augmented by Mary Tumelty’s clever use of backlighting and Paul Boyd’s trademark shadow play.

Deborah Maguire’s choreography has been drilled into the cast, with lots of distinctive group movements to help differentiate between the characters in each new location. The gentle horror actions of Great Aunt Tanzy’s guards in Tick Tock is subtle but unmissable. The slippery dance reprise of Just Another Day in the Sun is both funny and symbolises the extensional threat to the good folks of Blomsterby. While the first quarter of the show is quite dialogue heavy – some pruning would definitely help enhance the ‘show, don’t tell’ storytelling – the pace noticeably quickens after the interval with a high-energy opening number and Eoin Robinson’s cartoon graphics that entice the young audience members to settle back into the journey to the Snow Queen’s home in Finnmark.

There are some great technical successes. The scene changes include neat effects to freeze over the town’s fountain (which hopefully doesn’t contribute to the flow of toddlers wanting to go to the toilet in the first half hour). The final switch from snowy Finnmark back to the Blomsterby town centre has a real wow factor, with the quick costume changes matched by the rapid transformation of the set. Stuart Marshall’s design serves the show well, while Gillian Lennox’s costumes have delicate detailing, like the red hair accessories of Tanzy’s guards toning in with Second Lieutenant Oakie’s military hat (worn by the versatile Christopher Finn). And it snows. Multiple times. Which should be mandatory for all family entertainment staged at Christmas. Expect vocal gasps from the audience when a familiar festival animal makes an appearance.

The young audiences packed into the Lyric Theatre will probably not realise that real life echoes some of the happenings on-stage. It’s natural for groups of creatives to form loose partnerships, working with each other over years, comfortable with each other’s foibles and methods. Much like the dramatic bond between Gerda and Kai – the two village folk who prove that they would go to the end of the earth for each other – it’s good to see Finn, Nelson and Maguire back working with Paul Boyd. But it’s also great to see new blood being tested on stage, with Nic Aoidh and Halliwell making their professional debuts this Christmas, and Paperboy alumni (2018 and 2019)  McGarvey returning to the Lyric stage.

The Snow Queen is a good reworking of the normally convoluted original tale by Hans Christian Andersen. It’s playing twice daily at the Lyric Theatre until 31 December, sharing the main stage with Grimes & McKee’s Christmas Craic’er while Pigeon & Plum’s Vaudeville Circus takes over the Naughton Studio.

Photo credit: Carrie Davenport

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