As usual, West Yorkshire Playhouse does everything possible to make a visit to its younger children’s play an occasion, from programmes that double as activity packs to cast members wandering through the audience pre-play and persuading the youngsters into pigeon impressions. Even more importantly, the adaptation of The Snow Queen is by one of the most reliably imaginative and theatrical of children’s playwrights, Mike Kenny.
Unfortunately the magic surfaces only intermittently, though Gail McIntyre’s production is always ingenious and eminently watchable, enough to hold the attention of an audience with a high percentage of 11-year-old sophisticates (the play is officially aimed at 4-plus).
The first signs are highly promising. Designer Hannah Clark’s set spreads through the Courtyard Theatre, re-configured to place the acting area between two banks of seats. Snow-flake motifs and cut-outs and model houses decorated with text create atmosphere which is intensified when the Snow Queen herself materialises as a ragged, expertly swung banner.
Surprisingly some of the problem may lie with the adaptation. This is not the clearest piece of story-telling: Hans Christian Andersen’s story is episodic, dealing with the challenges and obstacles faced by Gerda in her quest for her friend Kai who has been spirited away by the Snow Queen. In this version, it seems fragmented. The Garden Scene, for instance, delightful both visually and musically, gives no sense of how and why it connects with the Snow Queen – as I (no expert on Andersen) am told it does in the original.
Nonetheless there is much to enjoy and admire. The improvised props and scenery have an innocent charm, with the barmy scene change song as cast members gather up balloon-flowers an inspired touch. Pamela Okoroafor’s Gerda carries sincere conviction, even if greater vocal power would be welcome. All other duties are divided between four highly versatile performers. Christopher Chilton is a Mrs. Merton-styled Grandma as well as a confiding narrator and a deadpan reindeer. Duncan Barton, with little to do as Kai, reinvents himself as a doo-wop flower, a female robber chief and various birds as well as supplying the odd trumpet obbligato. Chris Lindon is a skilled bannerman, a volatile and oddly touching robber daughter and assorted livestock.
Ivan Stott is the linchpin of the performance. As composer, musical director and actor, he spends the evening (when not cooing frantically as the Pigeon) acting a bit, singing rather more, switching from guitar to violin to sound deck, and masterminding a highly effective sound plot.