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Joanna Holden - The Snow Queen

Wed, 7 Dec 2016

JOANNA HOLDEN continues in Bristol Old Vic's current retelling of THE SNOW QUEEN

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Review by Lyn Gardner - The Guardian

The opening moments of Lee Lyford’s production, with its baby puppet versions of the young Gerda and Kai, are so delightful that you fear they might be hard to top, but Vivienne Franzmann’s deliciously dark rewrite of Hans Christian Andersen’s original story keeps on delivering.

Like all the most terrifying nursery monsters, the Snow Queen herself begins as an idea, becomes a shadow and eventually looms into life – in this case, as a monstrous outsize puppet with piercing zephyr-blue eyes. This is probably not one for the younger members of the family. Everyone else is likely to be both charmed and scarily entertained by a story with some ingenious revisions that tells how a goblin army is snatching children from villages and taking them to the Snow Queen’s palace, where she feeds on their tantrums and tempers.

In Tom Rogers’ striking design, even the wooden beams of the sunny village houses bear hints of ice shards. The design really comes into its own in the chilling scene in which the goblin Dr Boffin experiments in a lab where the children are deep-frozen in ice.

Yes, it is quite bleak, but it’s often niftily comic and fetchingly camp in a scenario that celebrates difference, and different kinds of bravery, with a light touch. Kai is singled out by the village bullies because he is friends with a girl and prefers dance to football, Gerda has to learn to overcome her fears, and there is a neat little nod to the idea that the relationship between Gerda and the Little Robber Girl might blossom into something more grown up.

But first, Gerda has to defeat the Snow Queen, who is determined to secure the big fat heart of Kai, so full of affection and friendship, and transform his love into the hate on which she gorges. Gerda’s quest becomes one for love itself, and all the characters she meets along the way are exceptionally vivid, from the absurd Flower Witch, who tempts her with a memory-erasing muffin, to a depressed reindeer who must be roused from his apathy.

I wasn’t convinced by the revolutionary insurrection interlude, and the environmental angle is perhaps a bit tub-thumping in a show already bustling with themes. The production just needs some paring and a tad more narrative clarity

But there’s no need to trim any of Gwyneth Herbert’s delightful songs and their deadpan wit. Emily Burnett and Steven Roberts are winning as Gerda and Kai, and the rest of the cast are fantastic, too, working tirelessly as an ensemble and turning in standout cameos. I particularly liked Dylan Wood as the resigned Anton the Reindeer, and Joanna Holden who brings real comic clout to Boffin Goblin and the Robber Mum. A shivery treat.

At Bristol Old Vic until 15 January