REVIEW: Snow Queen at Playbox Theatre

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Steve Sutherland reviews Snow Queen, Playbox Theatre at the Dream Factory, Warwick, 31st December

Of all the many talents lost to the world in 2018, Playbox Theatre’s Snow Queen brings two especially to mind.

The first is Stephen Hillenberg, who died back in November. Stephen was the creator of Spongebob Squarepants, the cartoon series which, alongside such other God-given gifts as Shrek, Toy Story, Cat In The Hat (the Mike Myers movie), The Simpsons (of course) and Ren & Stimpy, made family viewing not just palatable, but actually brilliant back in the early noughties simply by working on the revolutionary assumption that kids are actually young adults and adults just older children.

It came as no surprise when our youngest child Mery’s first word was Spongebob (“Bobbob”) because these little miracles were so much a part of the fabric of the Sutho’s growing up.

Now and then, though, there would be a movie which missed the mark and sent us numb and reeling back into the pre-glory days of health-and-safety dumbed-down Disney. One such disappointment just happened to be Frozen, so imagine our shivers when Playbox announced The Snow Queen, the genesis of Frozen, as their revived Christmas extravaganza.

We feared the worst but I’m delighted to say that, showering shame on our meagre faith, The Dream Factory remains entirely, blessedly Olaf-less. Hallelujah! Frozen it ain’t, but a chiller and a thriller it most assuredly is. Just as soon as Jamie Whitelaw’s tweedy narrator informs us that, “Not all stories are gentle stories,” we are hurled headlong into that uniquely Playboxian terrain where the audience will be challenged and provoked into thought as well as hugely entertained.

This take on Hans Christian Andersen’s famous fairytale has been rendered pretty scary by Toby Quash’s rewrite and marvellously alive by Emily Quash’s crisp direction. Rumour has it that the team were set on producing the show on actual ice until the rink proved too tricky and expensive. So we get our skaters on rollerblades whizzing within a whisker of us sat in the round in a fantastically balletic and perilous choreography. Led gracefully by Ed Butler as if he were commanding s display of the Red Arrows, the skating alone would make a visit worthwhile.

Visually splendid and dramatically lit, one of the show’s major virtues is the way that well-known and time-worn characters have been released from their over-telling and brought back to life. Freya Travis appears the most darling Gerda but she can be snappy and bossy and bolshy as any pre-teen; an extraordinarily accomplished performance for one so young. Ethan Phillips is her Kai, full of verve and shouty bravado one minute, a mute zombie the next.

The scene where the little protagonists hand over the baton of their fates to the older cast is beautifully staged. Olivia Hass is deeply emotional as the determined, tested, doubting then trusting older Gerda, and Rob Redwood is a charming and handsome elder Kai. Along the way we meet Paige Cooper’s seductively sinister Sorceress presiding over the narcotically charmed garden; Amberquay Alford’s delightful princess surrounded by a gaggle of ninnies-in-waiting who titter like gossip-starved Teletubbies; Danni Burridge as a strapping boss robber channeling Johnny Depp’s Captain Sparrow; and Kate Jones, whose scrumptious comic turn as Raven recalls classic Charlie Chaplin.

There are some deliciously spooky ensemble parts too: the whispering ghosts under black veils of dreams, the Snow Queen’s fur-clad servants, twisting and writhing in an endless ecstasy of pain, and the growing army of distressed lost children shouting wordlessly into the ether, unheard and unheeded by the passing world. These memorable tableaux remain with you when you leave, little hauntings on the shadowy margins of your regular day-to-days.

And presiding over all, there’s Eilidh Evans’ Snow Queen, motivelessly evil and elegantly regal, a beautifully psychotic mesmeric force cruelly driven by an untold, internalised agenda. Tiny ones in the audience cowered; the rest of us too as she forced her captives to gaze horrified into a mirror, their reflections as warped and damaged as the cruellest taunts they might fear from social media.

This Snow Queen is a coming of age with no cosy ending, the home life recovered by the friends-grown-maybe-lovers’ reunion a fleeting comfort to be withered by time. Which brings us to the other lost talent which Snow Queen called to my mind. Jahseh Onfroy, aka XxxTentacion, or X, as he was popularly known, was gunned down in June aged just 20 in an apt but still unnecessary end to a life that had gone pretty bad but was by all accounts on the road to redemption. He had no coming of age like Kai or Gerda, there was no resolution, no matter how vague or unknown the outcome; a fate shared by all the anonymous kids who didn’t make it — the shanked in the wrong place at the wrong time, the accidentally over-dosed, the ones who chose to end it all or had the end randomly inflicted upon them.

The Snow Queen is a seasonal reminder to us all: seek out the beauty, yeah, even in darkness.

To see what’s upcoming at Playbox visit www.playboxtheatre.com or call 01926 419555.