One of the best shows of 2020 (see other choices here) was undoubtedly What A Carve Up! This was produced by an ambitious trio of theatres: The Lawrence Batley in Huddersfield, The Barn in Cirencester and The New Wolsey in Ipswich. In common with most such regional venues they would all normally regard the panto season as a time to fill up the coffers to support their other work throughout the year. I had already seen and reviewed A Christmas Carol from the LBT and Peter Pan from The Barn; neither of these fitted the traditional mould, the first being an audio play with animations and the second a solo performance. And so, it was left to the third venue to stage something more recognizably pantomimey – though even this departed from the norm in several respects.
The Snow Queen Rock ‘n’ Roll Panto is designated as a “blended panto”. This new format makes use of live performance, video and even a bit of outside broadcasting to create a modern twist on a centuries old tradition. Of course, the version I saw was a recording of all this made in the hiatus between lockdowns in front of a socially distanced audience. I should at this point apologise for the late appearance of this review – unfortunately my email invite was consigned to my spam folder and I only discovered it a couple of days before the stream was about to end.
The show is high on energy and makes interesting use of the source material which isn’t one of the usual panto staples. The storyline comes from a Hans Christian Andersen story (more of a novella really) which demonstrates the eternal struggle between good as represented by two children Kay and Gerda and evil personified in the Snow Queen. The latter was reportedly based on Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind who rejected Andersen’s amorous advances (not that this features in any way in the show but I thought it was a nice piece of QI trivia). The Snow Queen steals Kay away to her winter palace and Gerda sets out on a quest to rescue him. Andersen’s original makes for sombre reading and is heavily moralistic; this panto version was, mercifully, neither.
In fact, it was more like attending a party. The other modern twist employed is to make the show into a juke box musical. Modern day pantos have regularly made use of pop songs (and, sometimes their singers -cf Cilla Black or Cliff Richard) to punctuate the action but here the music is, in many respects, the reason for the show. It’s an eclectic list featuring the work of acts such as Annie Lennox, The Proclaimers, Johnny Cash, Madonna and, perhaps most surprisingly U2 (“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” since you ask). The panto performers are clearly all accomplished musicians and if they are not in a scene, they are grabbing a variety of instruments to provide the musical accompaniment as a tight-knit house band. Suddenly seeing Dame Sigrid Smorgasbord earnestly playing an intricate bass line is one of the many joys on display.
I doubt if there can actually be a harder working panto cast this season. There’s only five of them and none of them leave the stage, except for costume changes – three of the performer/musicians also play double characters. James Haggie seems to be everywhere playing the villainous sidekick Icicle, the apprentice blacksmith Simon Clinkerbin and filling in on guitar in between times. And Natasha Lewis gets to personify both good and evil as Primrose, the spirit of Spring and the wicked Snow Queen herself. Lucy Wells and Adam Langstaff play the “young” lovers but probably have the least fun roles. Steve Simmonds is a winner as the Dame wearing an outrageous Bake Off inspired costume and delivering some dreadful jokes – but they’re good precisely because they are so dreadful. In the best panto tradition, one or two of them get a bit near the knuckle and things sometimes get a bit over contrived just to “fit in” a song. Sitting in a tub of burning coals merely so that you can deliver the Kings Of Leon’s “My Sex Is On Fire” is perhaps stretching things a bit too far.
There is good use of some filmed inserts, which at least give the performers a brief break, with the arrival of the Snow Queen’s sleigh being particularly well done. There are also several scenes filmed in and around Ipswich itself with Gerda and the Dame on a mission to rescue Kay racing through the streets as they head north – in this case Norwich! In fact, one of the strengths of this show is that it hooks in so well to the region it is serving. Sure, there’s some confusion as to whether we are in Suffolk or the Scandinavian town of Ballbroken (oh yes!) but this isn’t an exercise in logical plotting and writer/director Peter Rowe clearly knows what will appeal to his audience. And although they were asked to clap along rather than sing, they were clearly enjoying themselves.
Unfortunately, because of the aforementioned email invite going astray, I saw what was effectively the final performance yesterday. So, I was glad to have what will probably be my last panto visit this season and my first show of 2021, be something so merry and life affirming. Here’s to the year continuing in that vein!
The Snow Queen Rock ‘n’ Roll Panto has just finished online (sorry, about that)
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