Why is Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen so cold? It’s not a cracker joke, but the question Jude Christian answers with an adaptation, directed by Emma Baggott, that is strongest as an origin story. It introduces us to the queen (Phoebe Naughton) as an ostracised schoolgirl who – like poor Rudolph – is never let in on any reindeer games. Barred from the summer flower festival, she banishes herself from the town.
She meets Kai (Finlay McGuigan) after he’s had a bust-up with his pal Gerda (Rebecca Wilson). “I haven’t got any friends,” he mutters. “Me neither,” she replies, in an affecting encounter. As in Andersen’s story, this queen is not a dastardly force of evil – just judged that way by others. She and Gerda unite to save Kai after he is struck by a shard from the Troll’s broken mirror (deftly done by Laura Howard’s lighting).
Dramatically, the show relies on Kai’s internal struggle with his inflicted icy nature and on the race to rescue him. But this production for children aged six to 12 needs a greater sense of adventure, darkness and danger. The first half ends weakly and a magical touch is missing from the sleigh ride. The scene where the Troll’s mirror shatters into bits brings shiny confetti down into the auditorium but the sense that we must beware the cruel streak they cause is underplayed.
Christian – whose plays include a brilliantly distilled Hamlet for children and a zany Dick Whittington, both at the National Theatre – observes how kids trying to be cool can lead to their cold-blooded taunts. A message about kindness to the environment, too, is underdeveloped and the script’s poignancy sits awkwardly with the jokes, pantomime touches and songs (by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite and Sophie Galpin) that are sandwiched in.
The best of those has 1960s-style pop harmonies from a buttercup, a chrysanthemum and a laburnum. Naughton, Paula James and Joe Boylan’s floral costumes for that scene are the crowning glory of designer Laura Ann Price’s headwear, which includes a wide-rimmed owl hat, and Price’s tubular glow-up trees are also impressive. But this is a show that never really chills or warms the way it should.
At Polka theatre, London, until 21 January