Bristol Old Vic has had a pretty spectacular year of programming for its 250th anniversary year but as it enters its 251st, with The Snow Queen, something has gone badly awry. Hans Christian Andersen's tale of a young girl's quest to rescue her friend Kai from the evil clutches of the Snow Queen is episodic in nature but the various parts fail to congeal here and it's not helped by a staging that is sometimes unfocused, finds it's currency in spectacle rather than story and most unforgivable, lacks in Christmas joie de vivre.
Andersen's 1844 fairytale was ahead of the game in gender politics - no need for debate about meddling with tradition in parliament this year - by allowing a girl to be the hero of its tale. Gerda is a true fairytale heroine; brave, clever and loyal, she is ready to go out into the world and rescue her male friend from the darkness of the Snow Queen's dominion. On her journey she encounters Flower Kings, a band of bandits, grumpy reindeer and eventually a destiny to face the terrifying spectre of the Queen herself.
Emily Burnett is a terrific Gerda, she has an open hearted view of the world that shines through, she is the kind of friend we all would have wanted when we were growing up. Her friendship with Stephen Roberts' Kai is defined by the insults they throw at each other, Gerda according to Kai is like 'all the farts in a fart factory' in the only line of Vivienne Franzmann's workman like adaptation that truly caused roars of laughter from the young ones in the audience. Kai is brave in his own way, he is different than the other children in their village but isn't ashamed: why shouldn't he wear a dress if Gerda gets to dress as a tomboy. It's the strength of the friendship defined at the outset that should drive the rest of the evening. These two actors play their part. Unfortunately as they are split up it all begins to fall apart.
There are a number of striking visual images contained within director Lee Lyford's production, the bright primary coloured Sergeant Pepper domain of the Flower Kin, an ice cold laboratory of human farming that feels very Westworld, the terrifying puppet Snow Queen that towers over all she surveys. Yet the jokes don't land, the songs are clunky and the relationships feel forced. The actors try their best with the material at hand but it just falls flat and it looks like they know it. Lyford is a family theatre specialist but he just hasn't got this one right. He has bypassed story for technical effects. As a result it loses its heart.
Just down the road at Tobacco Factory Theatre, Sally Cookson's Cinderella has returned to Bristol and is the gold standard for how best to tell these archetypal tales with ingenuity and originality. Spectacle and magic is an essential ingredient at Christmas but not at the expense of a story well told. This is a production that too often forgets this and too often falls flat as a result.