“Love is life’s snow.” This poignant quote from Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen comes right near the end of Tatty Hennessy’s one-woman show, tying the strands of the story together absolutely perfectly. Following acclaimed runs at the VAULT Festival and Arcola Theatre, A Hundred Words for Snow has been out on a UK tour, which finishes this month with a limited engagement at Trafalgar Studios. Gemma Barnett takes on the role of Rory, and Lucy Jane Atkinson returns to direct.
Rory’s dad has just died. He may not have been the coolest parent ever (he was a Geography teacher – at her school), but the sudden nature of his death has hit her incredibly hard. The adventures and treasure hunts they used to go on when she was younger have all come flooding back, as she remembers that he would have been a ‘real’ explorer if he’d had the chance; the two of them had even talked about taking a trip to the Arctic together someday. But why can’t they still do it? Her dad’s death doesn’t have to stop them – she can just take his ashes! Clearly more affected by grief than she’s letting on, Rory sets off on an adventure of a lifetime with one target in mind: the North Pole.
One of the best things about this play is how informative it is. You almost don’t realise how much information you’re being fed at the time, but afterwards you’ll leave the theatre with a load of new knowledge in your head! I think the five different North Poles are etched in my memory forever now, and it’s genuinely really interesting to learn bits about all of the explorers – especially as they weren’t all men (hearing about female polar explorers is actually a bit of a revelation). Explorer & writer Felicity Aston acted as a consultant during the research for this play, and I think this layer of authenticity really pays off; even if aspects of the fiction are occasionally pushed to the extreme, having an accurate information base to work from is incredibly valuable.
Of course, all of this would go to waste if the performer wasn’t up to scratch, but Gemma Barnett is absolutely captivating as Rory. She instantly takes to the conversational style of the script, engaging with the audience and bringing heaps of charm to her character; Barnett is eminently believable as the teenager who gradually gets out of her depth – most of the time she seems very mature and practical, though there are timely reminders that she is young, vulnerable, unprepared and lacking in experience. The fact that she decides to undertake this gargantuan journey on her own, rather than suggest it to her mum as a joint way to help to come to terms with their loss, shows exactly how grief is affecting her. Barnett’s performance is so personable that you want Rory to succeed – for herself, for her dad, and for all the female explorers who have been forgotten over the years.
What completes the whole thing is the design element. The backdrop is a zoomed in part of a map showing the geographic North Pole (presumably), which spreads out onto the floor and also includes some little boxes and cubby holes in which props can be stored. There is some great lighting design from Lucy Adams, with Rory’s cold & isolation accentuated by a deepening blue light – coupled with some atmospheric sound design from Mark Sutcliffe. At roughly 70 minutes long, this play flows extremely smoothly and sweeps you up on an adventure of your own.
My verdict? A perfectly crafted one-woman show that touches, entertains & teaches, as it explores grief and polar exploration – a charming performance from Gemma Barnett.
A Hundred Words for Snow runs at Trafalgar Studios 2 until 30 March 2019. Tickets are available online or from the box office.