The Snow Queen at the Royal Lyceum Edinburgh – review

Hans Christian Andersen’s piece is relocated to Scotland

Claire Dargo as the Snow Queen, costumes and set design by Emily James and image © Jess Shurte

There’s an impressive creative team behind the Edinburgh Lyceum’s Christmas show. Writer Morna Young, director Cora Bisset and composer Finn Anderson have a huge string of respected theatrical credits to their names and, while I haven’t loved everything of theirs that I’ve seen, they’re a formidable group of minds who should have created magic by working as a collective.

Which makes it both surprising and disappointing that their take on The Snow Queen doesn’t hang together better. Much of this is down to Young’s script which moves the story to what looks like Victorian Scotland and travels from Edinburgh to the Cairngorms and beyond – as Gerda looks for the wicked Snow Queen who has stolen her best friend Kei. She goes through a lot of different episodes as she does so, however; too many, in fact, as we lurch from the Old Town of Edinburgh into a fairy garden, then the bizarre Agnes’ Countrywear outfitters of the Cairngorms and a ship via a flying unicorn. That’s far too much to fit into a show that needs to appeal to families, and several of the episodes could have been amalgamated or cut to make it tighter.

Nor did I love the decision to use Scots language for almost all of the script, with a few regional dialects like Doric thrown in at various points. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and it’s a valid artistic choice to make it a particularly Scottish take on the story. It feels rather jarring, however, when (let’s be blunt) it isn’t language that most of the Edinburgh audience will use on a day-to-day basis. Furthermore, it’s the servants and the poor who speak in the broadest dialect while the goddesses and professors speak more closely to the King’s English, which feels a little uncomfortable, and doesn’t reinforce the idea of Scots as a language for all. Overall the linguistic choice feels evangelical; ideological even. The dramatic gains are few, and it’s as if banging the drum for the language mattered more to Young than telling a lucid story. There were plenty of words and phrases I missed, for example, and much of the opening Prologue I struggled to follow. If that’s a problem for me then it’ll be even trickier for youngsters who don’t know the phrases, or tourists who are visiting Edinburgh from afar.

It’s all the more of a shame because the show’s trimmings are really lovely. Emily James’ designs are a treat, extending the line of the auditorium into the stage to reinforce the idea that we’re telling a story. Landmarks and location sets glide on and off beautifully to evoke different settings, and Lizzie Powell’s lighting design is cleverly descriptive and beautiful to look at.

Anderson’s songs aren’t always earworms, but there are some very evocative numbers, particularly the atmospheric “Nobody looks up any more” and “What happens tomorrow”, and I enjoyed the continental flowers that sing in the fairy garden. The acting cast is generally strong, led by the convincingly childlike Rosie Graham (Gerda) and Sebastian Lim-Seet (Kei), though they’re all comprehensively upstaged by the uproarious camp of Richard Conlon’s scene-stealing Hamish the Unicorn.

Several kids in the audience around me were losing patience with it by the end, so it could really do with some fine-tuning, but it’s still pleasant to look at and mostly a decent festive diversion. I doubt it will survive much beyond this year, though.