Dancer James Leece plays the title role in the stage show version of classic Christmas cartoon The Snowman.
Between performances and festive family fun, he found time for a chat about choreography, costumes and childhood nostalgia with Georgina Butler.
James Leece was born in Aberdeen and trained at The Royal Ballet School and London Studio Centre. He began his professional performing career dancing for Matthew Bourne’s company in the early days when it was called Adventures in Motion Pictures and continued when it became Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures. James has performed roles in Bourne’s Swan Lake, Nutcracker!, Highland Fling, Edward Scissorhands and The Car Man. Further theatre credits include being Robbie and first cover Johnny in the West End production of Dirty Dancing at the Aldwych Theatre, and starring as the leading man, Don Lockwood, in the 2013–2014 UK tour of Singin’ in the Rain.
Currently, James Leece is one of two performers alternating the title role in the Birmingham Repertory Theatre production of The Snowman at The Peacock Theatre, London dance house Sadler’s Wells’ West End venue. This enchanting show is based on the 1982 animated film, which was inspired by Raymond Briggs’ 1978 children’s book. The narrative sees a young boy and his snowman share a magical night of friendship, fun and flying.
Directed by Bill Alexander, the stage show tells the story entirely through music and dance. It features a musical score and lyrics by the film’s composer Howard Blake – including the classic theme song, ‘Walking In The Air’ – and choreography by Robert North.
The Snowman is now an annual seasonal staple in the capital. The five-week Christmas 2017 run marks the production’s 20th year at The Peacock Theatre, making it the longest-running Christmas show in English theatre history. In November 2017 the cast toured the show to Manchester and Glasgow. The tour will resume throughout January 2018, with performances in Southampton, Milton Keynes and Brighton.
Without a doubt, The Snowman has become a much-loved festive tradition for audiences and cast members alike. Indeed, James is presently donning the fluffy white Snowman suit for his sixth year in the title role. A father to two young children, and an experienced performer, he is full of admiration for this timeless show.
On the day of our interview, James Leece was looking forward to watching his daughter, Isabella, in her nativity play later in the afternoon. His biography, sent out to journalists with the show’s press release, states that he dedicates his performances to his two children, four-year-old Isabella and two-year-old Albie.
What do Isabella and Albie think of The Snowman?
It’s part of Christmas for our family so we all love it. We are London-based so the kids see it every year.
Isabella is actually a Snowman baby as she was born during my second contract with the show. She turns five on 30th December of this run at The Peacock Theatre, so she is old enough to really follow the production. She knows all the moves and we have the official DVD release of the show too. In fact, she probably knows it as well as, if not better than, me!
Albie has only just turned two but I’m sure it won’t take him long to pick up all the choreography either!
Do they dance?
We live in quite a stagey area of London and Isabella does ballet on Saturdays. Albie doesn’t dance yet but I’d like him to soon.
Isabella is being an angel in her nativity and I would love her to be in the show with me someday but of course the child role is for a boy. It’s a dream part for the three nine-year-old boys who alternate the role. They get to be on stage, dancing, flying! They are so skilled, and they balance performing with their schooling too.
I want to hang on seven more years so I can have Albie up on the stage with me as the boy. I don’t know if I can last that long though!
With younger audience members in mind, is the story of the stage show easy to follow?
Definitely. It’s recommended for children aged three and up and it follows the film quite closely, so it is just magic for the kids and nostalgic for us grown-ups.
The first act shows the boy building the Snowman and then Snowman coming alive and being shown around the boy’s world.
The second act is the Snowman’s world. Here the kids meet Father Christmas – he always gets a big cheer – and some extra characters that are not in the film: the Ice Princess and a baddie called Jack Frost.
And is there enough dancing to keep dance enthusiasts interested?
The whole show is told through dancing. Most of the choreography is classically based and the cast is classically trained.
The Ice Princess is the ballerina, she wears pointe shoes and has the most pas de deux bits to dance, but all the characters have proper ballet choreography and partnering to do.
There is some jazz and contemporary in there too, particularly for Jack Frost.
What is it like dancing in the snowman suit?
Hot. But you do get used to it through the training. We start off learning the choreography and then build up to being able to do it all in this hot costume.
It is so hot, my first year it was just unbelievably sweaty! You can eat as much as you like over Christmas, you just sweat it off.
You are also limited in what you can see, your hearing is muffled and the size of it means you must relearn partnering to some extent. You need to allow extra space for lifting the girl and know where she is because you can’t see so clearly.
In the first act, the Snowman must stay still for fifteen minutes before he comes alive. That is a challenge too, in the suit. A real stamina test!
How does the show look and sound?
When I’m on the stage performing I don’t fully appreciate the lighting and the wonder of it all but when you are in the audience and watch it, it is all just beautiful.
The stage is surrounded by snow-covered pine trees that lean in towards the stage and create the look of a snow globe. And, of course, the costumes of the characters in the North Pole are amazing.
The music is beautiful too. We don’t sing but there are carol singers who sing to the parents and the boy and we have the recording of ‘Walking In The Air’.
How does it feel to be bringing The Snowman to Milton Keynes, a new destination for the production’s tour?
I am looking forward to being back in Milton Keynes, I’ve performed at the theatre with Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures and Singin’ in the Rain. It’s a great venue that gets plenty of top shows. A couple of my friends and neighbours, Matthew and Lauren, are currently performing there in pantomime.
Bringing The Snowman to audiences outside London is exciting. It’s like The Lion King in that it is based on the film but the stage show is famous in its own right too and taking more bookings than ever.
Audiences love The Snowman show so it’s a great feeling to bring it to families outside London. And the tour is not too long so I am not away from my family too long, which is a factor now I am a parent.
A final word on why we should book tickets?
Really, the show is a magical, winter wonderland brought to life with music and dancing.
Why wouldn’t you book tickets?
* Photograph of James Leece by Peter Simpkin.
* Production photography of James Leece and the rest of the cast courtesy of The Snowman.
The Snowman visits Milton Keynes Theatre from Wednesday 17 to Saturday 20 January 2018.
A version of this interview with James Leece is featured on Total MK.
Update 19 January 2018: Read my review of The Snowman at Milton Keynes Theatre.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.