The week in theatre: Frozen; Rockets and Blue Lights – review
Is it worth melting for? Not if you’re looking for a new future for the musical. Not if you’re hoping for the most adventurous work of the vital director-designer team Michael Grandage and Christopher Oram. But. If you are after visual bravura in one of the most all-embracing – and gloriously restored – of London theatres, this is puddletime.
The stage version of Frozen, first seen on Broadway in 2018, is recognisably Disney: princesses, perky creatures, pointy towers, everyone clutching their defining characteristic like a double-vax certificate. Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’s music is mainly just reliably colourful. But extras make the occasion fly: the slight (let’s not overdo this) twist by which Prince Charming does not come through but female solidarity does; the definite charm of a knock-kneed reindeer with lockdown locks; and the mysterious to me – though not to the audience – allure of a cobbled-together snowman. After the year of ice-olation, the swooping Let It Go reassures with its familiarity as well as its promise of freedom. Of numbers added for the stage, Hygge is very jollily choreographed by Rob Ashford, to be cavorted by a line of naked bodies piling out of a sauna. The capering Fixer Upper is particularly adroit.
There is plenty of sparkle – both on stage and in the audience from small girls in long, silky dresses – but there is also sparkiness (and the odd Ugg) from Stephanie McKeon and Samantha Barks as Anna and Elsa, and Asanda Abbie Masike and Tilly-Raye Bayer as their mini-versions.
There’s no hanging about in this show, and no pawing the audience for applause at the end of a number. The songs are quick and short, tipping into one another like dominoes; some inventive moments – such as the tango led by very funny Richard Frame – are shrugged off in seconds.
Rapidity has always been Grandage and Oram’s hallmark; they bowl dramas along with images that in lesser hands would be showstoppers. Massive icicles shoot from the wings like daggers; the ice bridge slides across the stage like a skater. Elsa’s touch sends white light shooting all around the proscenium arch, so that the action is enclosed in a frozen frame. The Let It Go transformation dress arrives like a shooting star. The snow palace dazzles with its glinting lights, silvery temptations and shifting scale. Tiny specks of snow hover; giant flakes spread out like monochrome catherine wheels. I have just stopped myself from writing: “It is like being taken into the heart of a snowflake.” Have I been Disneyfied?
The whiteness of the stage is slowly unfreezing. During the pandemic, and particularly since the murder of George Floyd, there have been urgent theatrical accounts of racism, often first-hand. Rockets and Blue Lights now raises some fundamental questions. How can atrocities be shown without art giving them a sanitising touch? Has Britain become an “abolitionist theme park”? In discussions of slavery, is not the accent nearly always on “white salvationism”? The 18th century meets the 21st and asks: “Do you live in better times?”
Winsome Pinnock’s new(ish) play switches between slave ship and television studio, between a family branded and flogged and tortured, and a young black woman who finds her role in a 21st-century TV series unaccountably diminished and rewritten. The worlds meet in a consideration of JMW Turner’s painting of a slave ship.
Miranda Cromwell’s vivid, strongly performed production, whose run at the Royal Exchange in Manchester was cut short by lockdown and was later broadcast on Radio 3, is sometimes lumpy. There are cumbersome explanatory exchanges – and it is time to rest the idea that actors should wave chairs above their heads in slow motion to indicate Unrealistic Scene Changing. Still, given Pinnock’s distrust of aestheticising, some awkwardness may even be appropriate. This is a rich, constantly questing evening.
Under the direction of the composer Femi Temowo, utterly unjaunty sea shanties disclose longing and powerful defiance: their strength provides a marvellous, expressive thread in the play. And a sudden, illuminating fusion of history and personal pain demonstrates why the stage is an ideal forum for multilayered debates: it can at a stroke both show and explain. A small girl is in tears. “You’ve got a sugar stick to comfort you,” her mother tells her, lovingly and bitterly. She knows at what cost that sweetness was bought: she herself was branded on a slave ship headed for sugar plantations.
Star ratings (out of five)
Rockets and Blue Lights ★★★★