As someone who grew up on the border with Suffolk, I can confirm that Ipswich is well-known for its football team (which gets its supporters’ hopes up year upon year before cruelly dashing them each season), its rivalry with Norwich, the terrible train service and, of course, the New Wolsey Theatre’s rock ’n’ roll pantomime.
Over the years the theatre has gained a reputation for putting on a great show each Christmas and, despite the original planned production of Jack and the Beanstalk being postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, earlier this year the New Wolsey confirmed that the show would go on this year with a scaled-back production of The Snow Queen. In a first for the theatre, the rock ’n’ roll panto is in a blended format, with a socially distanced audience inside the auditorium, while viewers are also able to watch from home.
In the small town of Ballbroken (yes, really), Gerda is about to be crowned Queen of May when her love Kay is kidnapped by the evil Snow Queen. With time running out, Primrose, Spirit of the Spring, encourages Gerda and Kay’s mother Dame Sigrid Smorgasbord to trek to the frozen North (Norwich) to rescue Kay before he’s turned to ice forever.
Writer and director Peter Rowe has created an incredibly entertaining production full of joy and laughter. The show combines action and music, with a soundtrack of familiar pop and rock songs performed by the cast of actor/musicians. There may not be any ‘he’s behind you’ moments but there are plenty of the more traditional panto elements, from ‘baddies’ like the Snow Queen’s right hand man Icicle (James Haggie) who are rightfully booed by the audience; a fabulous pantomime dame courtesy of Steve Simmonds; jokes for all ages and topical references.
Ipswich fans will be happy at references to Norwich, while any commuters in the audience will certainly appreciate the Greater Anglia jokes. There’s a particularly amusing reference to Boris Johnson in Act 2, a quick rendition of ‘Die Corona’ and mention of the mask-wearing audience, but if anything The Snow Queen is the perfect way to take your mind off of current affairs.
The blended format works incredibly well, and it’s particularly heart-warming to hear the in-house audience booing and cheering throughout. Those watching from home aren’t left out and are involved during the interval, voting on the name of the Great Hammer of Ipswich, which is needed to try and free Kay (the hammer itself is collected from a viewer’s house live on air). Although the interval is put to good use it does feel like an odd choice given how short the second act is, and if anything it interrupts the pace of the show.
Set designer Barney George does a great job of differentiating between Ballbroken and the Snow Queen’s Ice Palace, aided by Lighting Designer David Phillips who creates different moods with his warm purples and chilly blue lighting choices. The show also relies on the use of video projections to move the story along when it’s not possible to do so on stage; for example there’s a great scene of Gerda and Dame Smorgasbord making their way along the East Anglian coast to Norwich to the tune of I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).
The talented cast of five do a particularly great job as both actors and musicians and it’s clear they’re all having a ball on stage. Musically they do no wrong, hitting each note perfectly as they belt out hits like Let’s Get Loud, Walking on Broken Glass and even Sex on Fire. They also put in great performances acting wise, with many of the cast taking on more than one role and succeeding in making them noticeably different. James Haggie showcases his acting range as he plays the loveable if awkward Simon Clinkerbin, Gerda’s friend, and the evil Icicle, and has a great voice to match; as does Natasha Lewis as Primrose and the Snow Queen. Her rendition of Madonna’s Frozen is particularly haunting, while her duet of Love on Top with Lucy Wells certainly lifts spirits. Lucy Wells and Adam Langstaff are both incredibly endearing as Gerda and Kay, full of enthusiasm and cheer. Although this is very much an ensemble performance Steve Simmonds does come very close to stealing the show. He’s hilarious as the ‘naturally unassuming’ Dame Smorgasbord, flirting with an audience member who catches his eye, dishing out suggestible jokes and raising spirits with his energetic performance.
This may not have been the show the New Wolsey originally intended to put on this year, but The Snow Queen really is a triumph and the perfect tonic to these darker times. Full of joy and imagination with some hilarious jokes and great music choices, this show is guaranteed to brighten your spirits this Christmas.
Rating: 4 out of 5.
The Snow Queen runs at the New Wolsey Theatre until Christmas Eve.
Photo credit: Mike Kwasniak
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