The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 8th January, 2014
A staple of seasonal television fare for decades, Raymond Briggs’s story first appeared as a wordless graphic novel before being animated as a silent film. This stage adaptation returning to the REP is also wordless and it’s refreshing to see a play performed in dumb show. Emphasis is on visual storytelling but the importance of Howard Blake’s beautiful score cannot be overlooked, underscoring and describing the action. This is quality music, performed by hard-working musicians who play continuously throughout the entire show. Musical director David Quigley and his band are the heartbeat of the production, the mood ring of the action. You would have a lovely time if you were to close your eyes and just listen.
But if you do that, your eyes will be missing a treat. Ruari Murchison’s set frames the action in concentric arches, giving the impression of a snow globe, that magical object from childhood – and this show is no less charming than one of those. The story, for those unaware, is of a young boy who builds a snowman to stand guard in the garden. Like Frankenstein, the boy finds his creation comes to life and he teaches him about the world around him, in a tour of the house that takes in the television, the electric fire and the freezer. The snowman reciprocates by taking the boy to the North Pole to meet Father Christmas.
As the boy young Joe Sheridan is a delight: expressive, graceful and apparently tireless. The Snowman himself is played by Martin Fenton and Edward Stevens (one dances, one flies) but it is with this character that I take a bit of an issue, due to his make-up. I couldn’t warm to him, you might say. In the storybook and the animated film, the Snowman’s face is a sphere, simply drawn. The changing of a couple of lines expresses his changing emotions and thought processes. On stage however, the face doesn’t change. The smile is a Joker’s grimace – all expression is done through gesture and body language – and I found him more than a little sinister. Before he comes to life, he stands stock still while a group of carol singers perform. Like a fluffy Michael Myers from the Halloween films. When he moves and clowns around, he’s like an albino Ronald McDonald – this is not good if you suffer from coulrophobia.
Putting fear of clowns aside, overall this is a charming experience. The second half is more dancey, more balletic, with two-legged reindeer and a host of snowmen of varying racial and cultural stereotypes. There is a spiky Jack Frost (Daniel James Greenaway) in ballet tights and with more than a hint of the Judder Man to him. He is the nominal baddie but poses no real threat in this wintry idyll.
The most surreal moment of the entire piece is when a human-sized pineapple, coconut and banana come dancing out of the fridge. The banana is sporting sunglasses and I tried to think why. I imagine it’s to make him look marginally less phallic.
There is humour and enchantment here for all ages, although younger audience members will find it most entrancing. It’s an excellent way of easing kids towards the medium of ballet and also a lesson in transience and mortality – without being too, ahem, slushy.