The festive fare at Chelsea Theatre this year comes courtesy of Paper Balloon, as they bring an alternative theatrical treat to the stage. It’s aimed primarily at young families, even including a colouring book in the programme to keep children entertained before the start of the show.
It is based around those “extremely dangerous” creatures, winter sprites. A large chunk of the show introduces the Royal Spriteological Society, and provides several areas of “winter sprite training” – including showing the audience one of their specimens. Once everyone is fully trained, it’s time to look into one of their unsolved cases, involving a missing girl (Liza). It soon becomes apparent that Liza accidentally squashed a sprite, so it needs to be unsquashed by telling it a completely new story; thanks to some help from the audience this is achieved, and the Spriteologists can then head off in pursuit of the little girl.
There are a few things this production does really well. For one thing, the use of music is very clever – as the audience enters, cast member Joseph Hardy is steadily layering up a track using a loop pedal, including piano, trumpet and accordion. It’s much more interesting to listen to than a pre-recorded track, or a single instrument played live, and immediately gives something of a Soviet feel to the piece.
The shadow puppetry (performed by Alex Kanefsky and Dorie Kinnear) is very cleverly done. Using a large screen, they sometimes project from in front of (other times from behind) it; the designs are occasionally reminiscent of shapes you can render from paper snowflakes, but obviously a bit more sophisticated than that. Rotating a landscape is a great way of showing figures travelling, and they’re also adept at layering up shapes to create panoramas.
One particular highlight is the creation of the new story. For this, the actors borrow some items from the audience (such as a hat, jacket and umbrella) – and then ask for inspiration. They’re obviously working to their own template, but to be able to improvise with whatever weird and wonderful suggestions children throw at them is impressive indeed. Our tale involved Freddie the football-playing dinosaur defeating an evil arachnophobic beetle, with the help of a large spider – all played out ingeniously using the procured objects.
Given that it is aimed at slightly younger people, I do wonder if it is a tad too long and complicated to follow. Perhaps a bit more interaction would prevent little’uns from getting quite so restless – and maybe just making it about the training (including the unsquishing section, of course) rather than Liza’s story. It’s enthusiastically performed by the cast, but that section isn’t particularly memorable.
My verdict? A different festive piece, celebrating winter and mythology rather than the usual fare – the shadow puppetry and improvised story are great highlights.
Once Upon A Snowflake runs at the Chelsea Theatre until 22 December 2017. Tickets are available online or from the box office.