I’ve long been an admirer of Dundee Rep’s Christmas productions and count many of them amongst my favourite theatrical experiences. Living down South now, I don’t get to attend as many as I would like but this year I did. If I had walked five hundred miles, I would have been more disappointed than I am but I only drove 500 miles and will, in a few days’ time, drive 500 more and have to proclaim the Dundee Rep’s Christmas 2018 production of “The Snow Queen” is too flaky and prone to drifting for it to receive a flurry of praise.
An ambitious retelling of the classic Hans Christian Andersen fable, this version of “The Snow Queen” may have interesting thematic ambitions but it’s hampered by an underwritten and overly-padded script and a cast far too small to pull off the multiplicity of roles without confusing the audience. There are songs aplenty – almost too many – with a Disney-style showstopper partway into the second half which would be pretty impressive if it wasn’t entirely unearned by what preceded it. There may be an abundance of songs but there’s very little in the way of incident in a story which introduces it eponymous villain a little too late into proceedings, with the theatrical equivalent of a jump scare.
Said villainess, played by Sophie Reid as a curious mixture of Kate Bush, Bjork and occasionally, surprisingly, Sarah Jane Morris, is an intriguing but underdeveloped character, not really given enough stage time to establish menace or pathos. Chiara Sparkes, as the hero of the piece Gerda, is a wonderful presence but hampered by a production which gives her not enough to say or do save walk up and down the disappointingly Spartan stage. She’s joined in fun performances from David Delve as Sir Jeffery the Summer Knight and Daniella Jam as Hallie the bandit although the latter two are too conspicuous in other roles earlier in the performance which leads to some confusion, especially amongst younger theatre-goers.
Another highlight is the puppetry and performance of Ewan Donald as the Crow although there’s a question mark over some of the costume choices here. On stage puppetry can be superbly effective but to put the puppeteer in leather trousers is a definite statement, that statement being: ‘see me’. For such a sparse production, it’s an oddly eye-catching decision.
Many of the previous productions I’ve seen have been boosted by fantastic, bordering on magical set design but “The Snow Queen” is far too reliant on laser projection and it’s early sets of washing line sheets feels like lazy minimalism rather than artistic flair. In its underwhelming nature, it matches the wildly uneven tone of the piece, mostly sombre and serious punctuated by moments of awkward comedy and loose plot threads which tantalise but are left unresolved or forgotten. Moments which should pay off don’t thanks to a clumsy lack of set-up and arbitrary and slightly desperate introductions late on, such as a “Dirty Harry” quoting giant penguin which jars rather than amuses.
It’s still a reasonably pleasant show, and streets ahead of your run-of-the-mill panto, but by The Rep’s own high standards, this underwhelming, underwritten and overly-musical “The Snow Queen” left me cold.