Grotty goblins, missing children, and a heart-eating queen – Bristol Old Vic unveils its brave and beautiful Christmas show

Words by Jenny Hayes, photography by Mark Douet

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. The shops are stuffed full of festive goodies, Christmas trees are bedecked with gaudy baubles, twinkling lights bring sparkle to dark evenings, and I’m feeling merrier than Santa himself. So when I see that Bristol Old Vic’s Christmas show has arrived in town, I jingle bell all the way down to King Street to revel in a healthy dose of good cheer.

But it seems a little elfish mischief may have been afoot behind the scenes this year. Instead of the usual offering of warm-hearted storytelling, the BOV team has decided to throw us out of our cosy comfort zone and into the icy clutches of The Snow Queen. Are you sitting comfortably? Well, you won’t be for long. This year’s theatrical extravaganza is dark – and quite deliciously so.

The tale is chilling, with a gruesome goblin army stealing children from their homes so that the evil Snow Queen can feed off their hearts. But it is against this desolate landscape that the central story of Gerda and Kai really shines through.

Best friends since birth, these two ingénues embody the themes of friendship and love that stand against the nightmarish dystopian regime of the Snow Queen. But, as they struggle with the self-doubt and soul-searching that accompanies the onset of their teenage years, can they stay true to themselves, and each other? As both rebel against the rigid roles assigned to them by conservative society, the Snow Queen senses the fractures in their relationship and sweeps in with a malevolent plan to secure her ultimate meal. But is it Gerda or Kai she’s looking to gobble?

Emily Burnett and Steven Roberts are suitably wide-eyed and engaging as Gerda and Kai, while excellent comedy performances by goblin double act Joanna Holden and Dylan Wood, as Dr Boffin and her apprentice, ensure the laughs come thick and fast. Jessica Hayles is on hilarious form as both a disgruntled parrot and robotic duchess, and Zara Ramm brings presence to the stage in her every role, proving particularly memorable in the guise of lovable rogue Marty Magpie.

Stealing the show from the sidelines, however, is Gwyneth Herbert. As well as composing the music for the show – which romps riotously through myriad genres, from folk songs to show tunes – her incredible vocal range spans everything from shattering ice, to chattering bats, to the melodious tones of the Snow Queen herself.

And the on-stage incarnation of this ultra-villainess is more spine-chilling still. Standing nine-feet high, Marc Parrett’s puppet vision of the Snow Queen is ethereal, ghostly and alien. She is at once an enthralling yet truly terrifying spectre – the eloquent grace of her movements enchanting, and in stark opposition to the pitiless darkness in her heart.

Alongside this strong cast of actors and breathtaking puppetry, a beautiful tapestry of backdrops and clever projection sequences bring to life the vivid world created by writer Vivienne Franzmann. Her script unites childish delight and world-weary despair in a rich, fiendishly gruesome verbal landscape that will have kids and adults alike squirming in grossed-out delight.

There’s a definite element of the surreal to the show, heightened by the fact that some sequences do feel a little randomly stitched together, but overall it’s a fabulous tale. And I do mean fabulous. With a male lead that rocks a dress with far more aplomb than his female counterpart, and a flower witch with a penchant for wearing psychedelic Lycra, leopard-print platforms and half a herbaceous border in his beard, the take-home message is loud and clear – diversity rocks, so never be afraid to be yourself.

The Snow Queen sticks two fingers up at the hatred and intolerance that is spewed out daily by the media and world leaders alike, and instead happily makes a song and dance out of positive affirmations such as “whatever makes you happy, dear” and “I like you, just the way you are.” In his directorial debut for Bristol Old Vic, Lee Lyford has delivered a sumptuous Christmas spectacle with a positive message that will melt even the frostiest hearts this winter.

My tip? Keep an eye out for Anton the gloomy reindeer, who delivers the best surprise of the night.

The Snow Queen is running at Bristol Old Vic until Sunday 15 January. Performances are daily at 7pm with select matinees at 2pm. Tickets: £9.50 – £34, available from the box office on 0117 987 7877 or bristololdvic.org.uk