When I was eight I remember subjecting my family to a puppet version of Cinderella, performed entirely from behind the settee. Theatre N16 have created a not dissimilar effect with their Christmas family show, The Snow Queen which runs until 22nd December. But rather than feel cheap, its home-made special effects and seemingly non-existent production budget lend it a charm so utterly beguiling that no lavish pantomime could possibly hope to compete.
The set is little more than a few chairs, cardboard boxes, a standard lamp and an old ironing board. With only 40 seats, the audience feels very much a part of the show – like you’re sitting in an old attic room – and all the more magical for it. Very quickly, you realise you’re going to have to use a lot of imagination – but isn’t that what theatre’s all about?
The show begins with brother and sister, Kay (James Tobin) and Greta (Jessica Arden) fighting – like kids do. It soon emerges that Kay has been mean rather a lot lately, and won’t play games or sing songs. When a fight results in Greta’s favourite toy, a flower, being plunged spitefully into a glass of milk it seems Kay may have gone too far.
Tatty Hennessy’s clever adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s classic tale (co-directed by Scott Ellis) keeps the story of lost youth zipping along, with the introduction of a narrator (played with real warmth by Jessica Strawson) enabling the story to unfold like we’re unwrapping a curious gift, as Kay disappears and is quickly replaced by a wise-cracking, beat-boxing crow. There’s a minor niggle with construction of the puppet when the crow flies, and the actors eye-lines need work to fully bring the puppet to life, but an entertaining script filled with bird-puns often flies to the rescue.
We quickly learn of the creation of a fabled mirror, which reflects nothing beautiful or good – only the ugliness and unhappiness it sees. As the mirror is raised to fill the sky, soon the whole world turns to darkness, winter and snow. The mirror cracks and as it does, it breaks into tiny shards and particles of dust, getting into people’s eyes and down into their hearts. Into this frozen world, the Snow Queen enters, stealing people and replacing them with imposters. And just such a fate seems to have befallen Kay.
In a daring night-flight to the North Pole in a plane made entirely from boxes and an old ironing board, Greta and Crow (who doesn’t do lifting, “being a crow – not a crane”) soar above the rooftops of Balham, riding like the Valkyrie to save Kay, landing rather bumpily near a cottage in the woods.
Jessica Strawson soon shows she’s far more than just a skilled narrator, appearing as “Old woman with cat – called Norman”. Fortunately, Crow soon realizes that this is no ordinary little-old-lady, and just in the nick of time Greta escapes her distraction of giant cakes and hot chocolate, and the two friends continue their quest.
Trudging on through the crunching cracking ice, they soon encounter gruff Yorkshireman Willy Crankbottom (looking uncannily like Jessica Strawson in a different hat). This time it’s Crow who is tempted away, as Simon Cowell-esque Willy promises him fame, fortune, and instant irresistibility to a certain dolly bird.
So, with Crow off to find fame, Greta sets off into the cold night alone. Suddenly the sky is filled with twinkling stars and northern lights. In a simple feat of pure imagination, Greta skates across the lake and as she does, sees the Snow Queen’s castle in the distance.
As with all heroic quests, nothing’s ever simple. With just a rake and a lampshade, suddenly Jessica Strawson arrives as a bear – determind that no games or guests or skaters in their pyjamas shall enter The Palace. But this is a bear that secretly yearns to dance and play and soon, Greta has the mighty bear skating to a medley of Bolero, Dirty Dancing and Gangnam Style – the kids loved it.
There are, undoubtedly, a few moments that very young children may find a little frightening, such as Greta entering the dark hall to find Kay, frozen like a statue. The Ice Queen appears, once again in shadow, trying to persuade Greta that Kay is safe here, frozen in time. It is powerful allegory for anyone torn between the joy of childhood and frightening adult world.
The Snow Queen’s powerful spell is finally broken by the simplest act of love and the return of Crow who finally realises a life of fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. As the icy shards of the magic mirror fall from the her eyes, so even the Snow Queen’s heart melts and the spell of winter she has cast upon the land is undone.
There are flaws with the production, and N16’s The Snow Queen may not be for those expecting fancy lighting or much of a set, but if you’re happy to let your imagination fly, you’ll be richly rewarded. It might even inspire a new generation to stage their own Christmas shows in the front room using just a lamp shade and the boxes that all that stuff you ordered from Amazon came in.
THE SNOW QUEEN
Theatre N16, Balham
The Bedford, 77 Bedford Hill, London SW12 9HD
Until 22 December
Book Tickets for the Snow Queen online or call 07969138899
Running time 50 minutes