The Snow Queen: the canary in the coal-mine

Kai's gran with puppet Gerda

Oh dear, theatre’s not having a great month, is it? So many theatres hedged their bets on re-opening in time for the lucrative Christmas season, only for this new form of Teenage Mutant Ninja Coronavirus to scupper many plans. Where productions have gone ahead, it largely came down to luck, and one of the theatres on the lucky list is the Stephen Joseph Theatre. In fact, they’ve been extraordinarily lucky: as well as being in North Yorkshire that has so far evaded tiers 3 and 4, the unscheduled shutdown in November conveniently fell in a gap between their two major performances. Even in the process of writing, they’ve had yet another narrow escape.

But if any theatre deserves a bit of good fortune in their favour, it’s the Stephen Joseph Theatre. I cannot think of any theatre that has worked harder to re-open its doors. Even back in April, they had plans on standby to get going as soon as possible whenever they were able to. That original plan (a touring Hull Truck production of Two) has since been kicked into the long grass, but instead they got going relatively quickly with a John Godber play, conveniently written by, rehearsed and performed by his family. From the government go-ahead to curtain up it was about two months, not quite as fast off the mark as the impressive/reckless three weeks achieved by The Warren Outdoors, but still way ahead of most theatres.

Paul Robinson described their situation as “the canary in the coalmine”; and it’s true to say that had the ticket sales not materialised – and there was no guarantee they would – it would have been a disaster. But the gamble came good. I cannot tell you if Sunny Side Up was any good because the entire run sold out weeks in advance, albeit with a much reduced capacity. But I was able to make it to The Snow Queen, their hastily-planned solo Christmas show, and I can now tell you how it works.

The first impression I had was formed way before making it to Scarborough. Even though the SJT would probably have sold out the run regardless, they really went out of their way to assure audiences they would be safe to attend, both with publicity and actual measures. Even if they were taking a gamble financially, they’d erred on the side of caution with the lurgi. They manage arrival times to avoid the normal stepping over other people already in seats. Also, similar to The Warren they made use of at-seat refreshments, keeping two of their six rows free to make this possible. One side-effect of this is that capacity is cut further – had they filled seats up to the legal limit I reckon they could have sold 50% more tickets. But no-one can say they’re being blase about safety.

The Snow Queen enchants puppet KaiBut anyway, what about the play? So, The Snow Queen is sort-of based on the Hans Christian Andersen story. It’s actually ten years since they last performed this story, last time directed by Robinson’s predecessor Chris Monks, but that was a faithful adaptation (back in the days when you could have people from more than one household on stage without fear of dropping dead). This adaptation, on the other hand, for both financial and plague-avoiding reasons, is a solo performance, with the story told by the Snow Queen’s arch-enemy, the Sorceress of Summer, played by Polly Lister. There is another challenge: normally a theatre would have two Christmas productions, one aimed as families, the other aimed at very young children. This year, when you’re lucky to have one production, it has to appeal to both groups. And this dilemma is solved quite cleverly by Nick Lane.

If this name sound familiar to you, Nick Lane has frequently been covered by me for three adaptations produced by Blackeyed Theatre. Two of them were quite faithful, but the one of note here is Jekyll and Hyde, where he introduced a completely new character and made it look like this was in the original story all along. He does something similar here. The Snow Queen is no longer a pawn of The Devil in an epic battle of good versus evil, but an embittered woman overshadowed by both her sister, aforementioned sorceress of summer, and the big guy in red. No-one likes winter, it’s all Christmas Christmas Christmas. She’s a very different character to the original, but if you didn’t know better you’d think this was how it was always written. What this does mean is that The Snow Queen can be hammed up to the level of panto villainess, plotting to put the nice children on Santa’s naughty list – seriously, we need fun theatre at the moment, children or no children – but without really dumbing down the tale.

Not everything new is disguised as the old. If you don’t know the story you’d probably twig the play has been transplanted to Scarborough (and the alternate world of “other-Scarborough”), Kai’s gran has been changed to a no-nonsense Yorkshire Nan, and there are various other obvious liberties taken such as the vacuous social-media savvy hashtag-obsessed wise women. One big change that’s not so obvious, however, are Gerda and Kai. In the book, Gerda is a heroic teenager on a quest to save her beloved. In this version, Gerda and Kai are just kids. Kai’s fateful gaze into the sky is now a dare he sets from himself to show he’s not a scaredy-cat, but the moments where Kai and later Gerda let their fear slip through their childish bravado is one of the most effective moments.

So, how do you do this as a solo play? Well, I counted eight characters Polly Lister played throughout the play, with some appearances of Gerda and Kai done with puppets. They went to town with the set, but by far the most praise went to her versatile performance. Some people have been amazed that you can do so much with one performer; me, not so much. Anyone who’s spent time at the Edinburgh and Brighton Fringes will know that actors do solo performances all the time, and switch characters using any or all of outfit, mannerisms or puppetry. As long as the actor, writer and director know what they’re doing – and I’ve seen enough of Polly Lister, Nick Lane and Paul Robinson to be sure this was the case here – they don’t disappoint. It’s just a pity that this solution, that seems a no-brainer to anyone who knows the capabilities of solo plays, isn’t considered more widely.

A few niggles. Good though the set was, I’m not sure the end-stage configuration justified the loss of one third of the seating available in the round (unless seating was already limited by getting people in and out the building, in which case ignore that). And this was maybe a little less accessible to young children as it could have been. I realise a single production that appeals to all ages is a challenge, but there were maybe a few bits where she could have spoken not quite so quickly for the benefit of the younger children. And in the final three-way showdown, it started to get a bit confusing when Lister kept switching between Gerda, Kai and the Snow Queen. Having used the puppets so effectively earlier in the play, maybe they could have made use of them here.

But on the whole, it’s a great job done under the most challenging of circumstances at a time when many theatres didn’t even try. With little enthusiasm for any more theatre in the winter months, and so many unknown variables up in the air, no-one knows what theatre will be up against in March onwards. But if it’s anything like now, there’s a lot other theatres could learn from the Stephen Joseph theatre, in terms of both practicality and artistic value. They’ve demonstrated how you can run a theatre in these circumstances and how you can achieve so much with so few on stage. The canary in the coalmine has flown outside chirping in triumph.

Note: In the two weeks prior to the performance I saw, I was staying at my mother’s in North Yorkshire. Long story how this came about – don’t worry, nobody I know has been anywhere near anyone with Coronavirus – but I assure you there is a very good reason why I temporarily needed to stay somewhere safer.

The Snow Queen runs until 31st December. Very limited tickets, returns only. Also available for online purchase via the SJT website.

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