The Snowman has become an institution. Raymond Briggs’ classic was turned into an animation Oscar nominated short film by Dianne Jackson that was an immediate hit. Like the book it is a story told through pictures, action and music, scored by Howard Blake, featuring the stand out song “Walking in the Air”. It has become so ingrained in British popular culture that it’s showing now is a compulsory annual event.
So how do you turn something so loved, so treasured and what is really a 26 minute short film into a full blown stage production that lasts almost two hours?
The story begins in 1993 with Birmingham Repertory Theatre and then artistic director, Bill Alexander, who approached Blake about creating a full-length stage version. They did and it proved successful. However, despite the initial triumph, Blake was able to convince Alexander to rework the show into a full length dance piece, for which he would write additional music and introduce some new characters. That version proved to be even more of a massive hit and that is what tours the UK today and which I was privileged enough to attend at the Manchester Opera House earlier this week.
Blake’s early reworkings also have choreographer Robert North to be thankful for. In unison with Blake, the duo produced a ballet version that was staged in Sweden. Those elements provide an integral part of the show, with its dreamy dance sequences drawing the audience into this fabled tale.
The first thing to hit your sense is the set design by Rauri Murchison, which is more than in keeping with the style of Briggs books and Jackson’s animated classic. It’s a visual treat to be honest and serves to show off the ballet like compositions through which the story of The Snowman is told.
The music to the Snowman has always been summed up by that well known hit “Walking in the Air”, but it is more than just that musical number which lasts a mere three and a half minutes. Both the animated film version and this stage production, the music provided by Howard Blake is a symphony of jubilation. It’s a musical score that allows the Briggs story to be told through dance, in fact it allows Briggs wordless story to truly shine.
I realise that the character of The Snowman will always get the plaudits here, here’s the one that everyone comes to see, it’s his face on the posters and he is wonderfully played by Martin Fenton, but it is the character of The Boy that really captivated me, played seemingly according to the Programme notes by a series of actors. It seems absurd that their young shoulders should burden the huge responsibility of carrying this production. Yet, they are more than capable. The performance on the night was a joy to behold, given it is a non speaking part they are able to convey the range of emotions to captivate the audience through movement and dance.
Of course there are the moments in this production that have a wow effect, most notably when the Snowman and The Boy are flying on stage when for some reason the Aled Jones version of Walking in the Air is used as opposed to the original from Peter Auty. Whoever it is, it is about the theatrics of showing off that particular set of scenes on the stage, and it is done magically so.
Nonetheless, not everything works here. The need to make more of the original material, stretching it over two acts, makes the story seem disjointed. The new characters, whilst fun, are perhaps antiquated in these modern times (there is an East Asian snowman with a stereotypical rice picker’s hat!). A love interest for the Snowman in the form of an Ice princess and a villain of the peace in the form of Jack Frost also feature. You cannot but feel as the grown up that Briggs original story about death and loss has given way to a more schmaltzy outlook.
Yet, the kids loved it. Perhaps the ultimate compliment I can give of this production is how accessible Blake, North and Birmingham REP have made ballet. As an art form it has a specific audience and it rarely breaks out of those confines and demographics. The Snowman not only makes it palatable, it does so in a production that is geared to a far more younger audience. If the histrionics from the toddlers and youngster sat besides me have anything to go by, it was a stunning success, with most utterly captivated in bewilderment at the story unfolding.
Verdict: A technically visually stunning retelling of the Raymond Briggs classic The Snowman. The music by Howard Blake is still the most beguiling aspect of this production and the ballet inspired scenes are wonderful. The kids will love it.