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Christmas theatre reviews: White Christmas | Sleeping Beauty | The Snow Queen

  • by JOYCE MCMILLAN
 

IT’S all about demographics, in modern theatre marketing; this is a show for kids, this for oldsters, and – oh yes – here’s one for Tina Turner fans.

White Christmas

Pitlochry Festival Theatre

* * * *

Sleeping Beauty

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow

* * * *

The Snow Queen

Dundee Rep

* * *

The odd thing about theatre, though, is its latent power to defy that kind of pigeonhole thinking; let a show show a flash of real excellence, or feature a few outstanding performances – and with one bound, it can spring free from its allotted place in the box-office universe, and become a night out that any audience would find hard to resist.

And something like this – or close to it – happens to John Durnin’s inspired stage production, at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, of the great Irving Berlin musical White Christmas, immortalised in the 1954 film starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. It’s not that the show is perfect. Some performances are stronger than others, and sometimes the company’s astonishing production values seem to collapse into a heap of Santa-themed kitsch.

Yet with 20 cast members, a huge wardrobe of ever-changing costumes, a ten-piece band, and a ­series of scene changes to rival some mid-scale West End tours, this Pitlochry show is a formidable technical achievement almost before the story starts rolling. And with the perfect mountain landscape outside, it soon becomes apparent that this classic ten-years-on tale of two Second World War GI’s who find showbiz fame and fortune, but then take time out in wintry Vermont to help their old general make a success of the inn he’s running, fits the Pitlochry atmosphere like a glove.

The songs are terrific, of course, ranging from Sisters and Blue Skies to the iconic title number. What gives Durnin’s production its real wow-factor, though, is the quality of the dancing and design, backed by an immaculate performance from musical director Hilary Brooks and her band; in the I Love A Piano tap-dance sequence, Adrian Rees’s black-and-white set and costumes combine with Chris Stuart-Wilson’s choreography to dazzling effect.

There are also two fine central performances from Grant Neal and Simon Coulthard as our heroes Bob and Phil, whose smart suits and elegant 1950s style draw an audible sigh of nostalgia from the Pitlochry audience. And beneath the surface of this all-singing, all-dancing show, there’s a deeper theme that even Arthur Miller would recognise – the one about whether the social solidarity and comradeship of war can survive in times of peace; and about how singing and dancing with all your heart means leaving cynicism behind, and trusting in the people around you, at least for a festive hour or two.

If Pitlochry’s White Christmas offers a traditional image of Christmas, Dominic Hill’s first seasonal show as director of the Citizens Theatre swerves to the opposite end of the spectrum, serving up a fairytale so skewed, so weird, and so stylishly out of kilter that it seems designed for teenagers who would snarl at the very idea of traditional panto. Rufus Norris’s version of Sleeping Beauty was first seen in London ten years ago, and it certainly plays fast and loose with the traditional story. There’s a fairy – the magnificent Kath Howden – who’s not so much bad as a bit moody and tempestuous, given to emitting a giant fart every time she casts a spell; and the prince who kisses Beauty awake, halfway through the story, turns out to be half ogre, with a mother – played with tremendous menopausal relish by Mark McDonnell – who would dearly like to feast on the two dear little puppet grandchildren Beauty and the Prince produce during the interval.

Like the new version of Cinderella at the Royal Lyceum, this is a Sleeping Beauty that gives not a fig for audience participation. In this case, though, the formula works, because the characters have their own complexities, and set up their own rip-roaring dramatic conflicts; and because Paddy Cunneen’s remarkable music, and Naomi Wilkinson’s memorable fantasy-tat design, drive the show along like some demented stage version of a screen fantasy drama, in which love finally triumphs, but in a world so grubbily perilous, and so stalked by weird mutant species, that its victory hardly seems secure.

At Dundee Rep, meanwhile, Jemima Levick rolls out a jolly, but slightly unsatisfying version of The Snow Queen, written by leading children’s playwright Mike Kenny. Here, Hans Christian Andersen’s chilling tale of little Kai – kidnapped by the terrifying Snow Queen, and saved by the love of his brave little friend Gerda – begins in a cheery village, where Gerda’s Grannie sells spectacles, and is a bit of a storyteller; so when Gerda sets off in search of Kai, grannie goes too, disguised as ­assorted birds and beasts along the way, to help tell the story.

As versions of The Snow Queen go, Kenny’s is about a tenth as strong as Stuart Paterson’s classic stage adaptation, which seems like a towering piece of poetic drama by comparison. Among the questions Kenny’s version does not even start to answer, in this staging, is why Grannie’s spectacles matter, and what the Snow Queen means to achieve by kidnapping Kai; in the early stages of the story, the narrative is a mess.

There are plenty of compensations, though, particularly in a lovely pair of performances from Ann Louise Ross as Grannie and Molly Vevers as Gerda, and in the cheering presence of a live three-piece band. For a show so preoccupied with storytelling, though, this one makes heavy weather of its own central narrative; and as for giving it any weight, or any shudder of wider significance – well, no, this is just the tale of Gerda and Kai, and how they finally came, in best fairytale style, to live happily ever after.

• White Christmas runs until 23 December; Sleeping Beauty until 6 January; Snow Queen until 5 January.

 

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