Claire Dargo as the Snow Queen ©Jess Shurte

The Snow Queen

Reviewer’s Rating

On the first bitterly cold night of winter, with a biting wind skirling around Edinburgh Castle’s rocky summit, frost twinkling in the air and a heavy blanket of darkness pressing down, The Royal Lyceum shines out as a beacon of cosy warmth. There surely can’t be many better places to watch a winter play than under its festively sparkling chandelier, with a press of eager adults and children surging to their seats, especially when such a classic tale as The Snow Queen is to be told.

Morna Young has taken on the task of adapting Hans Christian Andersen’s epic tale of the icy Snow Queen, her capture of the little boy Kay (renamed Kei here) and his rescue by his great friend Gerda. Young has retained the fairytale’s grand sweep, and made it a more explicit parable of the cycle of the seasons through the introduction of Bride – the Gaelic goddess of spring – and by imagining the Snow Queen as a tormented version of Beira, goddess of winter.

Young’s adaptation leans heavily on later interpretations of the nineteenth-century story, with elements clearly influenced by the White Witch in Narnia and Disney’s Frozen, while at points The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland are also clear references. These more familiar, contemporary touchstones might help make the story more accessible for younger viewers. So too will the inclusion of humorous talking animal sidekicks Corbie the crow and Hamish the Unicorn, a device playing clearly on the best Disney traditions.

Also in keeping with the Disney feel are the songs which occur throughout. Some work better than others, with the more surreal numbers being much more effective than the Disney-lite efforts. Likewise, the bigger set-pieces evoking mighty palaces and titanic battles are less effective than the smaller-scale scenes in which Gerda meets the many and various inhabitants of such strange, outlandish regions as ‘The Cairngorms’ and ‘Perth’.

The role of entertainer-in-chief belongs to Hamish the Unicorn (Richard Conlon), whose bawdy puns and unusual bodily functions mean the audience might never look at a rainbow in the same way again. In a play in which the vital importance of friendship is earnestly repeated, and warm hugs feature increasingly frequently, Hamish brings a welcome dose of rather arch fun.

Rosie Graham plays Gerda with a mix of guileless jollity and the steely resolve necessary in her quest to rescue her friend. Claire Dargo’s Snow Queen is in the best tradition of camp Disney villains, with a nice line in evil cackles. Corbie the crow and Kenneth the cat are engagingly brought to life by Samuel Pashby’s boundless physicality. On stage, the cast are given a cunning recreation of the Lyceum itself (designed by Emily James, whose costumes are also a delight) as a canvas on which to tell their story.

As we enter December, with the darkness growing ever longer and the cold biting ever deeper, it can be hard to imagine that spring will ever come. The Snow Queen is an enjoyable reminder that not only will spring arrive, but that without winter we would have no spring to welcome. It might just send the audience out into the chilly night with a new appreciation for Beira, goddess of winter, as well as singing a rather silly ditty about a flatulent unicorn.