snow queen tops

The Snow Queen is Children’s Top Choice 

This year’s Christmas show at Birmingham’s Old Rep Theatre is a new musical of the fairy tale The Snow Queen – after local children voted for the story to be staged.

The show, produced by Birmingham Ormiston Academy, is a new take on the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale and has been created by the same team who brought Pinocchio to the Station Street theatre last year.

It was during Pinocchio workshops with more than 1,000 primary school children in autumn 2018 that the team asked local youngsters which show they would like the company to stage this Christmas – and the resounding winner was The Snow Queen.

Director Alec Fellows-Bennett and writer Toby Hulse then had the task of turning that fairy tale into an all-singing, all-dancing stage show. And Alec admits it was initially quite a challenge.

“We knew the children had voted for The Snow Queen and so we read the original Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale – and we realised it was actually a little bit thin on story,” Alec says. “It seems to have inspired so many great and famous stories such as Frozen and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe but there’s not actually that much to the original story.”

In Andersen’s fairy tale the Snow Queen kidnaps a little boy Kai and keeps him prisoner in her frozen palace. But Kai’s best friend Gerda sets off to discover and rescue the missing youngster – braving the icy world of the Snow Queen to do so.

Toby and Alec needed more of a plot to fill an entire musical.

“Luckily the story has a brilliant prologue,” says Alec. “And that prologue tells a story. In the book it’s the devil who is in the story, but we’ve changed it to goblins for the show. They try to sneak a mirror into heaven and this mirror only shows you the worst in yourself and other people. Their plan is to show it to the angels and ruin the angels but in the process of trying to get into heaven the goblins drop the mirror and it smashes and the shards of glass go into the eyes of the human race.

queen on bike

“This whole wonderful prologue has all these themes about ice being reflective and making us look inward but Hans Christian Andersen doesn’t refer to it again.

“We decided to take the essence of the prologue and make that part of our story. It explains why the Snow Queen is fastened into her icy palace and why she’s frightened of the outside world and why she’s casting her icy spell over everybody. And so we use that moral tale and run that all the way through the story.”

The production features a professional creative team, five professional actors in the lead roles and a cast of 20 BOA students in the ensemble – playing parts from goblins and robbers to children.

Premiering at The Old Rep on November 16, The Snow Queen is the fifth BOA Christmas production at the historic theatre following on from Treasure Island, Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows and Pinocchio – all of which have been created for Birmingham.

“The Snow Queen is a brand-new musical written for The Old Rep and for the city and it’s definitely a Christmas musical,” says Alec. “I like being able to take something from the very beginning and put our Christmas message out there without having to crowbar it into a story which already exists. We can look at the story and give it an angle for today. We have total freedom and can be current.

“Creating something new and different enables us to create it for the actors who are playing it. There’s a collaborative process of having the composer, the author, the choreographer and myself, the director, all in a room and then being able literally to bounce off the talents of the actors we’ve got.

“My driving force always begins with entertaining people. I want them to go out from the show and say they had a brilliant afternoon, they’ve laughed, they’ve cried, they’ve danced, they’ve sung – that’s the primary goal. If it encourages them to go and see more theatre, for children to nag their parents and for parents to realise they can take their children to the theatre, that’s brilliant as well. There are other underlying messages in the story and if they sink in then even better.”

The Old Rep Christmas productions are popular with schools and Alec believes they may be the first time some children have seen a live piece of theatre.

“Because we try to keep our prices as low as we can and because we’re a city centre theatre, for a lot of kids it’s their only experience of theatre. It’s one of the reasons I don’t put in traditional gags - because they don’t actually know them. They wouldn’t know to shout ‘it’s behind you’ because so many of them have never stepped into a theatre before.

queen mids

“Our outreach programme, our location and the ability to get the kids there is incredibly important as it may be the first and only time they get to see theatre.”

Schools which book more than 150 tickets also have an opportunity to request a workshop from the academy’s outreach team – which means the children know a bit of the show beforehand.

BOA learning and participation officer Sam George explains: “We have this huge outreach programme that we run as part of the Christmas show. Last year I delivered introductory workshops to dancing, singing and acting to about 1,000 young people in primary schools across the West Midlands. And this year we’ve got even more than that lined up.

“It’s partly about getting the kids excited for the show so we’ll teach them a little bit of one of the songs and the routines and then when those kids come into the theatre and hear that song they sing and dance along – it’s wonderful to see.

“But more than that, it’s often about giving young people an experience in the arts that most of the year round they don’t get. At most schools it can be very hard to find room for the arts in young people’s education. To be able to go out and give young people a bit of a taste of performing is really exciting.”

The production is also a learning experience for the BOA students taking part. All the young actors undergo an audition process and then meet a demanding rehearsal and performance schedule totalling ten weeks.

BOA executive principal and CEO Gaynor Cheshire says: “This is a real-life experience of working with a professional creative team and being part of a cast with professional actors. It’s not a school show, it is real theatre with a paying audience.

“If this is what the young people want to do as a career then they are experiencing it and understanding the commitment that’s involved in doing two shows a day for weeks. They are giving up their half term holiday and being at rehearsal from 10am to 6pm so they know what commitment it needs.

“And it’s not just actors. You can be involved if you are a performer, or if you are part of the broadcast team as you can be filming it and making a documentary, you could be doing the marketing or the digital marketing side, you could be involved in the technical side or lighting. For us, it’s the whole process and the opportunities it gives to young people across the whole academy.”

BOA was launched in 2011 to specialise in creative, digital and performing arts. An independent state-funded academy sponsored by the Ormiston Trust and Birmingham City University, the school currently has around 1,000 pupils. And the next two years will see the academy take huge strides forward with the launch of two new schools in Birmingham city centre.

“One is Stage and Screen which will be dedicated to training in all areas of technical, production and management in both theatre and on-screen – this could be set design, lighting, costume, admin, production,” explains Gaynor. “And then we will have BOA Digital which will focus on digital technology covering digital broadcasting (TV, film, radio) and digital marketing. We hope to have the two new schools opened by September 2021.”

Diane Parkes 

*The Snow Queen is staged at The Old Rep Theatre, Birmingham until December 30. For tickets and information see or call 0121 359 9444.

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