Tell Tale Hearts are now based at Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, but this Christmas show is first enjoying a week’s run at the Civic, Barnsley, which is well suited to the production’s needs. In a large in-the-round space, with audience members close to the action, cast and customers can have fun racing around in sledges improvised from sheets or the cast can sway merrily (and get very excited by the arrival of bees) as a giant-sized flower garden.
The story of Gerda’s ultimately successful quest for her friend Kay, captured and corrupted by the wicked Snow Queen, is told pretty straightforwardly, except that all five cast members are supposed to be mischievous sprites. The opening scene, full of their funny voices and silly laughs, is a bit irritating, but it opens the way to an expansive acting style and enables the “sprites” to act as go-betweens for the audience. The interaction with the audience is especially natural: individuals are remembered, running gags pursued throughout the performance and some of the older audience members covered in amused embarrassment.
The adaptation from Hans C. Andersen is by Jan Jeans and Natasha Holmes, with Holmes also taking charge of direction and puppetry. Stage effects and Sophia Lovell Smith’s designs tend to the large-scale and can be suitably spectacular, but avoid the sophisticated or elaborate.
The set-piece comic scenes are often developed for their own sakes as much as for the plot. The school room scene boasts an eccentrically camp teacher from Derek Elwood (his other meaningful role is as a reindeer) and Jake England Johns embarking on Kay’s course as a very naughty boy. Johns has a fine time generally, swapping asides with the audience and doing a spot of juggling. Hannah Waters has to fight against a craving for chocolate and the others’ unwillingness to give her decent parts and Julia Gwynne’s menace as a smoothly evil Snow Queen is enhanced by her stilt-walking ability. Only Susan Momoko Hingley has to play it straight as Gerda, but she seems to enjoy it anyway!