A Theatr Clwyd & Paperfinch co-production
After the enduring popularity of Disney’s Frozen, it is perhaps not surprising to see Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”, on which the film was loosely based, adapted as a stage show for children. It was the story for this year’s CBeebies Christmas show (which received a record 376,000 applications for tickets in the free ballot), as well as for this festive production at Theatr Clwyd in North Wales. But aside from following the same story, the two shows couldn’t be more different. Where the CBeebies show offers the comfort of familiar faces, slapstick and sing-along songs (one character even shouts “there’s always a happy ending, isn’t there everyone?”), this show features darker, more complicated themes, told from multiple perspectives.
Each of us is given one of four differently-coloured lanyards to wear, determining the path we will follow. Whilst waiting in the foyer, two flamboyantly dressed characters work the room, introducing themselves as interior designers for the theatre. Their discussion with a Theatr Clwyd usher is soon derailed when they discover a mirror, crash through it, and urge us to follow them. And so it begins.
We enter a dark and sparkly corridor with some trepidation (parents and children both), and immediately hit a fork. As in all good adventures, the only valid response is to split up. The route I take leads into a large marketplace, in the middle of which is an old fashioned caravan. Young Gerda and her Grandma greet us, and begin to tell us their story. Gerda enthuses about her best friend Kai, who she speaks to intermittently via her tin-can radio, and Grandma tells us of the evil Snow Queen.
After this moment of calm storytelling, we’re joined by Kai and the other half of the audience. They start singing acapella to each other, then from within the caravan emerge several musicians playing instruments, a Mayor arrives to ring a bell, and the market bursts into life.
It’s at this point that the scale of the production becomes apparent. The set is huge, featuring several stalls, a stable (with a puppet cow) and an artist drawing caricatures. I’m told afterwards that the audience size is capped at 70 (although there were far fewer on my visit), with a cast of just over thirty. As we explore the market, the characters interact with us personally: my daughter is invited to stroke the cow, I’m offered a mulled wine, and someone else places a flower in my hair. So far, it’s all just fun. But then a storm breaks out and the drama begins. Gerda and Kai are separated, and the audience splits again. My group follow Gerda along a forest trail, and into a trap. A troup of female robbers (who have Scottish accents) pounce upon us, hauling Gerda up in a net.
We end up on a quest to help Gerda, joining the matriarchal gang (slogan: ”smashing the patriarchy”). Daubed with camouflage paint and adorned with bandanas, we climb into a treehouse, and venture backstage past dressing rooms and the theatre laundry into an office where we watch the Snow Queen roaming the corridors on CCTV. We meet a troll headmaster and cross a floor of boiling lava, rearranging the furniture and clambering across school desks and chairs.
At times the dialogue can be a little baffling: if I’m starting to lose the story then I’m not sure if the younger audience members are taking it all in either. But those moments don’t matter too much, as it’s all told entertainingly and the action soon continues. At one point, we spot the Snow Queen in person, and are urged to hide or freeze as the Snow Queen enters, followed by her snow bees and one of the other groups. It’s a neat moment, and a reminder of just how much is going on at once during this production.
After all this, we eventually make it to the Snow Queen’s castle, where we are reunited with the rest of the audience. Here, Kai is held captive, with a shard of frozen ice in his eye cursing him with the ability to see all futures in all universes at once. It’s up to us to break the spell, using puzzle pieces we have picked up on our journey – it’s actually quite tricky, and takes us a little while. A jubilant conclusion ends with a request to hand back the various items that we’ve picked up along the way, with a small present given in return – a necessary, practical moment handled in a charming, in-character way.
There was no big round-of-applause moment though, which is a shame, as the cast truly deserve it. Only three of them are professional actors, with the rest a ‘community cast’ recruited from the local area. And they worked hard, improvising and interacting with the audience throughout. The result is a truly astonishing production which goes well beyond ‘promenade’ into something approaching the immersive style that Punchdrunk have made famous – but for a young audience!
Comparing notes afterwards, it’s clear that I only got a partial perspective on the full show. Other rooms and experiences my group didn’t see included a beautiful flower garden (where the audience followed instructions to make paper flowers), a princess’s castle, a river, and ‘the belly of the beast’. Whilst half the audience (including my group) saw the Snow Queen as a baddie, the other half were actively helping her!
At around an hour and half, the show did prove to be too long for some, and perhaps it would be better to recommend it for a smaller group of 7-11 year olds. But it worked on different levels, and even my almost-two-year-old toddler enjoyed plenty of moments.
The best accolade surely comes from the sound of the many excited children I heard afterwards, one of who gleefully shouted to their parent “that was nothing like the theatre!”