Magical dance theatre production The Snowman is a winsome winter warmer of a show that will banish those troublesome January blues.
The Birmingham Repertory Theatre performance proved to be the perfect midweek pick-me-up for audience members of all ages on press night at Milton Keynes Theatre. Effortlessly combining a timeless tale with visual spectacle, The Snowman whisks transfixed theatregoers off to a place of nostalgia, innocence and satisfyingly snowy Christmases.
The wide-eyed wonder of a child enjoying the festive season is captured with grace and good humour in this charming interpretation of Raymond Briggs’ beloved children’s picture book, published in 1978, and the subsequent 1982 animated film.
Waking up on Christmas Eve, a young boy is delighted to discover that it is snowing. He eagerly rushes outside, gets acquainted with the white stuff and sets to work building a snowman. That evening, the anticipation of Christmas Day’s imminent arrival means the boy is more reluctant to go to bed than ever before. Still restless in the middle of the night, he sneaks downstairs and creeps outside to check up on his snowman. To his astonishment, The Snowman comes alive and the pair share a special, starry skied adventure.
Directed by Bill Alexander, the production features music and lyrics by the film’s composer Howard Blake – including the iconic theme song, ‘Walking In The Air’. The stage show had its earliest beginnings when choreographer Robert North worked with Blake on turning The Snowman into a ballet for a company in Sweden. When North was made artistic director of Scottish Ballet, he took the show with him and it became one of his most celebrated works. Alexander then worked with North and Blake to extend the ballet into the dance theatre production that audiences are familiar with today. Indeed, The Snowman has now run for a record-breaking twenty years at London’s Peacock theatre, the West End home of Sadler’s Wells.
Despite having strong balletic roots, the movement in The Snowman is a marvellous mixture of endearing pedestrian action, expressive contemporary dance and more traditional ballet steps. The boy (danced by Cameron James Sutherland on press night) stomps, slips and slides through the snow, gleefully falls on his back to make snow angels and convincingly interacts with the characters around him while moving assuredly to the music. The Snowman (a role that is shared by performers Martin Fenton – who danced on press night – and James Leece) remains motionless for the first quarter of an hour or so of being onstage. He later makes up for this static start by engaging in plenty of physical humour, some ballet pas de deux with the sparkling Ice Princess and even a mini dance-off against the villain of the piece, Jack Frost.
Although there might not be as much formal “dancing” as one might initially expect, this show has a sweet simplicity that ensures movement and music are used with gentle intelligence to tell a story that has an enduring and universal appeal.
As soon as he realises that his creation has come to life, the boy invites The Snowman in out of the cold for a tour of his house. Together, the boy and his newfound friend encounter the family cat, experiment with the light switch, channel-hop on the television, experience the different temperatures of the fire and the fridge-freezer (no prizes for guessing which The Snowman prefers), play with toys and indulge in a spot of dressing up. Seeing these two characters explore the house is heart-warming and entertaining. However, having dancers emerge from the fridge in the kitchen dressed as fruit is slightly kooky, and some of the blackouts in between scenes feel a bit abrupt. Still, this is a family show. Children love a bit of silliness and the momentary pauses in proceedings give little ones time to reflect on what they have just seen.
The eagerly-awaited highlight of the show is, of course, the flying. The story sees The Snowman and the boy soar through the sky hand-in-hand, travelling to the North Pole where they meet The Snowman’s dancing friends – including Father Christmas! Set to a recording of ‘Walking In The Air’ (sung by a young Aled Jones) the flying is enchanting as the boy and The Snowman make graceful pedalling motions with their legs while hovering high above the stage. Even regular theatregoers go weak at the knees for such wizardry, so we can only imagine how thrilling the breathtaking special effects are for small children to witness.
Without a doubt, The Snowman transports audiences to a welcoming winter wonderland. The stage is bordered by snow-covered pine trees that lean inwards, producing a snow globe effect. The costumes are all stunning – particularly those for the woodland animals and the penguins – and the lighting and other special effects ensure we feel that a flurry of snowfall is never far away. The characters (the boy, his mum and dad, and the various snowmen, snowwomen and cuddly critters that we meet throughout the show) are cheerful and full of beans.
In short, The Snowman is simple, sincere, joyous and wholesome. It is easy escapism that will leave children and adults alike feeling warm and cosy. And that really is magic!
The Snowman continues at Milton Keynes Theatre with three performances on Saturday 20 January 2018.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.