BWW Review: THE SNOW QUEEN, Bristol Old Vic

When taking a work as well-known as Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen to the stage, the challenge is how to present the material in such a way that feels new and exciting. In this new production at the Bristol Old Vic, director Lee Lyford and company marry old and new with great spirit and aplomb: it's funny, heartfelt and wonderfully inventive.

Childhood friends Gerda (Emily Burnett) and Kai (Steven Roberts) are inseparable growing up, the world beyond their village unknown to them. Children begin to mysteriously vanish, as the Snow Queen tightens her icy grip on the world. When Kai too is taken, Gerda sets out on a journey to find her best friend, and along the way discovers important things about herself.

The production feels very playful: the stage is always busy and the number of set changes is dizzying, but each place Gerda visits seems to take on its own distinct personality - from the island of the Spring Witch, a place popping with bright colour, to the cavernous junkyard hideout of the Robber Girl and her family, where the colour selections instantly become more muted and the costumes have a Mad Max vibe.

Will Duke's clever projections include Gerda falling in rivers and characters traipsing castle hallways, and Tom Rogers' design features some brilliant visuals, particularly in the Snow Queen's palace, with its many formidable icy shards.

The music, underpinned by an accordion and violin played by Faith and Branko Ristic, switches seamlessly between joy and melancholy, a firm nod to the tone of the original story. The writing also revels in this dynamic, the crown jewel of which is Vivienne Franzmann's uncanny ability to take the familiar elements of the original story and blend them with a modern twist. Some of her additions, especially those that involve Joanna Holden's Boffin Goblin supervising the feeding of the children to the Snow Queen, are delectably dark and a little disturbing.

Kai and Gerda's friendship is palpable and endearing. Emily Burnett brings a warmth and sweet sincerity to the heroine that is well matched by Steven's loveable comic timing and sense of courage he brings to Kai. They're joined by a colourful and rather eccentric cast of characters, including the Spring Witch (in a scene-stealing turn by Miltos Yerolemou), a magpie leading a brigade of woodland creatures in revolution, and a reindeer named Anton.

Each member of the company pops up in various guises throughout, but again are always unique and distinctive, giving a great sense of the scope that can be achieved even when you have a small cast and minimal props.

The design and puppetry direction for the Snow Queen is an impressive feat by Marc Parrett; even when you don't see her full, imposing towering form she is never far away, thanks to some striking shadows or her voice (Gwyneth Herbert). The whole effect is rather eerie and unsettling, aided by some drastic changes in lighting.

The production strikes a good balance between cheeky, almost childlike charm and more 'grown-up' profound ideas such as inner growth, the meaning of friendship, and acceptance. It loses momentum in certain parts and thus feels a little bit lost like our questing Gerda, but overall it boasts tremendous heart and personality: a perfect festive treat.

The Snow Queen runs at Bristol Old Vic until 15 January, 2017

Photo credit: Mark Douet

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From This Author Kerrie Nicholson