There’s nothing quite like a Sherman Theatre Christmas production to get you in the festive mood – and The Snow Queen, this year’s main-stage musical offering, is a sumptuous Yuletide treat for the whole family. Directed by Tessa Walker, the show adapts Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale about two young friends, Gerda and Kai, whose friendship is tested when Gerda hurts Kai, and goes on an epic journey to find him and make amends after he is lured away by the wicked Snow Queen.
Reimagining the Danish fairy tale as an urban myth told to the children of the South Wales Valleys fits with the vision of the Sherman’s artistic director Joe Murphy in telling stories ‘rooted in Wales but relevant to the world’. The show has all the cosy feels of being told a great story on a cold winter night, not least because it seems to draw its framing device from The Princess Bride: in this case, it’s told to us and a stroppy little boy (Morgan Lllewelyn Jones) by his beleaguered babysitter (Grace O’Brien) as they wait out a snowstorm that has delayed the return of the boy’s mother. Having taken out the lights, the heating and the wi-fi, the blackout might as well have turned their sleepy town back to the Stone Age, and the boy isn’t in the mood for a story – but before long, the sitter’s initially irate listener becomes as enrapt as the audience as she weaves an epic tale told to her by her grandmother.
The story is indeed a captivating one, skilfully adapted by Conor Mitchell who pulls quintuple duty as writer, lyricist, composer, musical director and onstage pianist! Mitchell’s music is gorgeous – not all the songs work, though the best are up there with Frozen, which was incidentally inspired by Andersen’s story – but it’s his script that is particularly lovely: funny, sweet and sincere, it feels more universal in scope than Andersen’s, focusing less on faith and more on the power of inner strength, self-determination, and friendship; how kindness is not a commodity but a treasure that should be cultivated, cherished and shared, especially during a time in our world in which it may seem rare.
The beautiful messages woven into Mitchell’s script are wonderfully brought to life by an excellent, enthusiastic and deeply creative cast. Anni Dafydd goes on an incredible journey as Gerda, at first a fun but entitled young girl, whose casual classism alienates her closest friend Kai (Ed Parry), and her subsequent quest to find Kai and make up for her mistake is an epic and emotional one. Given that he is the subject of Gerda’s crusade, Parry might not get many scenes as Kai, but he does get to chew the scenery as an adorkably befuddled prince and a sassy anthropomorphic geranium (if that description along doesn’t compel you to see this show, I don’t know what will!)
Along the way, Gerda meets a conveyor belt of eccentric characters, from Hannah Jarman’s bolshy Bandit Girl to Jo Servi’s delightfully irascible Crow (reminiscent of Bagpuss’ Professor Yaffle, with Servi fantastically animating a puppet designed and directed by Rachael Canning) to Julian the adorably heroic reindeer (brought to vivid, hilarious life by Callum Lloyd, who infuses the character with Disney-level charm through sheer skill and enthusiasm – how he managed to draw laughs, gasps and awwws from a lampshade, I’ll never know). Stephanie McConville’s Snow Queen has a glamorously insidious presence, but she appears a touch too infrequently, and her outfit could have been just a bit grander to match the larger-than-life characters that preceded her.
Not only is the cast superb across the board – swapping between their roles as actors, musicians and puppeteers with ease – but the show is just beautiful to look at. Cecilia Carey’s inventive sets evoke myriad locations from an eternally-summery garden to an ice palace worthy of Elsa, the season-spanning vistas animated by the atmospheric sound and lighting design (by Ian Barnard and Katy Morison respectively), and Helen Rogers’ inventive costuming (the Bandit Queen’s ensemble is particularly eye-catching), not to mention the snow near-perpetually falling from the heavens. The Garden of Eternal Summer, ruled over by Rachel Nottingham’s slightly demented sorceress, is one of the most vivid locales, and also the setting of the show’s best scene which I can only describe as the Golden Afternoon song from Alice in Wonderland as reimagined by RuPaul’s Drag Race (featuring the above-mentioned sassy geranium, Jo Servi as a timorous wallflower and Stephanie McConville as an ultra-chic rose).
The Snow Queen is brimming with Christmas magic for the whole family, and it’s the perfect show to usher you into the festive season. In my experience, there’s nothing quite as Christmassy as a musical, and the Sherman’s production not only has Disney-calibre songs but a Disney-calibre story and message to go along with them. Not only will it inspire and entertain you, it will teach you that you have to experience the winters of your life in order to appreciate the summers. It’s not the shards of a magic mirror that make a person cruel – that capacity is within us all, but so too is the capacity for kindness, courageousness, and even a little bit of magic.
The Snow Queen is playing at the Sherman Theatre through 31 December.