LOCKDOWN 3 is enforcing a Stay Home policy that consigns theatres to hibernation through the winter chill and maybe beyond.
Until whenever, the arts must be a remote prospect for entertainment, and where better to start than the film version of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s five-star Christmas show, The Snow Queen.
A sell-out success in the Covid-secure, socially distanced Round auditorium last month, Nick Lane’s one-woman show for Polly Lister lost only its last day (December 31) to Scarborough’s move to Tier 3 status.
If you missed the live performances or want to re-live Lane’s magical, mischievous, moving show, The Snow Queen is available to rent until midnight on January 31. Tickets cost £12 at sjt.uk.com/SJTathome and allow online access for a week.
Lane, audacious inventor of winter wonderlands at the SJT since 2016, had been writing a five-hander version in the manner of past hits Pinocchio, A (Scarborough) Christmas Carol and Alice In Wonderland.
“Nick, could you change it to a one-hander,” asked SJT artistic director Paul Robinson, his regular partner in “sublime not-pantomime” shows for the child in all of us. Yes, he said.
“Polly, could you do it as a solo show,” Robinson asked Polly Lister, so memorably “hyper, needy, overbearing, but funny and vulnerable” as Mari Hoff in The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice and “sporty and no-nonsense” as lesbian Di in Di And Viv And Rose in the SJT’s 2017 summer season.
“Yes,” said Polly, who now would be playing multitudinous characters – a Goth raven poet and a grumpy Brummie reindeer among them – rather than merely the icy blast of the Snow Queen.
On board once more too were SJT artistic associate Simon Slater, Scarborough-born composer, lyricist and sound designer; video and lighting wizard Paul Steer; movement and puppetry director Gemma Fairlie and Helen Coyston, the designer for A (Scarborough) Christmas Carol, who decided everything should go with a swing in The Snow Queen.
Nick recalls the Covid-enforced change of tack from a cast of five to a solo show. “I got the call from Paul, when I’d done two drafts of the five-hander, full bells and whistles,” he says.
“He’d already cut it to a cast of four. ‘No problem at all’, I said, but then he said, ‘I’ve had a re-think, we’re going to make it a one-woman show’.
“And while he was explaining his reasoning, having first thought he was joking, I thought, ‘I’ve done two or three one-man shows before; this can work’. But having now done a two-hander Snow Queen at Hull Truck and started on the five-hander for the SJT and now written this solo show version, I don’t want to do another Snow Queen for ten years!”
Nick revelled in his new task. “You know the story of The Snow Queen: it’s bonkers!” he says. “In order to make it a one-woman show, give it a strong narrative and make it locally relevant, I followed a plot that wasn’t in the play originally, as you don’t just adapt a five-hander into a one-hander, as that would be really lazy.
“It’s ended up being my furthest removed play from the source material. That’s not to say it doesn’t follow Hans Christian Andersen’s story beats, but one of the things about The Snow Queen story is that she’s not in it apart from the beginning and the end, and there’s no explanation about why she did what she did and why she isn’t in the story more, so I’ve found a way to do that.
“At Hull Truck, the two-hander show was all about following the narrative beat and being silly, whereas this version does follow the narrative path but it does meander too.”
A child’s imagination was the key to Nick’s structure. “What a child enjoys is storytelling, which is the first avenue that opens up in a child, but it has to be more imaginative to fill the stage when it’s only one performer,” he says. “It has to be high energy and it must keep pushing the narrative to make the show work.”
Nick recalled meeting up with Polly Lister in 2017 after a Theatre Mill performance of his play Frankenstein Revelations at the York Medical Society premises in Stonegate. “She was with Richard Keightley, who was playing Victor Frankenstein, and we all went to the pub down the street, when she told me she was working on a one-woman play, more serious than mine, about having been a wife.”
Polly says: “Yes, I have form with solo shows. I wrote that one in 2017 for The Dukes theatre in Lancaster. It was called I Was A Wife and was autobiographical – I was a wife but then got ‘sacked’ from that role. By the time I wrote it, I was getting divorced: I got told the locks had been changed.
“It was set in a dressing room and it interrogated my idea of roles, being cast in different roles, with the different characters I’d played taking on the roles in the play.”
Polly, from Didsbury, Manchester, was familiar with Nick’s work. “I’ve been a fan from seeing two of his Christmas shows at Scarborough and that three-hander version of Frankenstein with all his lightness of touch, but a darkness too,” she says.
“So, I’ve wanted to work with him for ages and I was thrilled to be given the chance with The Snow Queen. I love every word of his script!”
A script that takes in not only the Snow Queen and Kai and Gerda from the Hans Christian Andersen story, but the aforementioned Brummie reindeer, the poetic raven and the Snow Queen’s sister, a “silly Sorceress” with Steampunk glasses, in a transformative journey to “the Other Scarborough” that can end only in glory or grief.
“I was allowed to be involved in the show’s creation, workshopping the play with Nick, looking to bring the characters alive, seeing which ones landed and which ones would need to grow,” says Polly.
“Nick never goes for the obvious, and I love the way he creates moods. You will feel sympathy for a character, but he doesn’t spoon-feed you, so nothing is overdone and there’s real pathos.”
Once Paul Robinson had made his “brave, cavalier but sensible” decision to go with a solo show, Polly knew she would relish performing in The Round. “I’m familiar with that stage design from the New Vic and the Theatre by the Lake at Keswick, and it’s my favourite way to perform,” she says.
“It feels much more intimate; you are all going on the journey together, and as a performer every angle is on show. You have to live it, breathe it and embody it.
“The ethos goes that once you’ve performed in the round, you’ll never want to perform again in an end-on theatre. The ‘Round’ sets you free.”
One revelation came as a surprise. “Every bit of why I love what I do is because I love being part of a team, so I really don’t like being the centre of attention this much!” says Polly, whose stage career runs to 24 years.
“Having it all rest on me, I’ve not enjoyed previously. On your own on stage, it’s harder work, whereas I love that thrill of uncertainty of sharing a stage, where I know I’m one of those people who knows I can help someone fix it when something goes wrong, bridging the broken dam.
“I feel much freer when I can be the saviour for someone else, but, for The Snow Queen, I just have to save myself.”
You would never sense any such loneliness of the socially distanced actor in Polly’s performance, maybe because she moves so fast between so many characters.
Polly had a couple of major roles lined up for 2020, in Theresa Hawkins’s adaptation of Angela Carter’s The Company Of Wolves at the New Vic Theatre and Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors at the Bolton Octagon. “Hopefully, they’ve just been postponed,” she says.
“Once we got over the ‘fear’, I went into a bubble with my parents and started painting, doing a lot of shelves and making wine racks in my flat in Didsbury. I did some little videos of what I’d been doing, and it was really nice to do some work on my flat, with it becoming a nest for the first time.”
2020 still elicited artistic output from Polly, such as an audiobook of The Snow Queen for Hello Out There Productions and playing Beatrice in a Zoom production of Much Ado About Nothing.
“We are the kings and queens of creation, and it’s just in our nature to be creative, whatever the circumstances” says Polly.
Those pandemic circumstances led to the SJT’s one-woman version of The Snow Queen, and you have until January 31 to enjoy actor Lister, director Robinson and writer Lane’s outstanding creativity in the home quiet of Lockdown 3.