Review: The Snow Queen, New Wolsey Theatre

One classic British Christmas tradition that we don't have here in the United States is going to see a panto. Pantos (short for pantomimes) are musical comedies aimed at families that are popular during the holiday season. I made a video a few years ago, when I lived in London and saw my first panto, talking about the tradition and what the shows are typically like.  

Obviously, pantos look a little different this year if they're happening at all. The New Wolsey Theatre is having their production of The Snow Queen available both in person and digitally. It's a great way for those in the UK who don't live nearby or can't go out in public to see the show, but it also opens it up to international audiences. If you're an American who's curious about panto, this is a great way to experience it.

The Snow Queen by Peter Rowe is a fairytale story using rock 'n' roll music. It includes lots of older songs that you will recognize like "I'm Gonna Be," "I Can See Clearly Now," and "Ring of Fire." Both costuming and performances are fun and over the top, as is befitting for a panto. 

It's a smaller cast than you would normally expect, but they do a great job of playing multiple roles. The actors also play instruments and double as the band. The show makes the most of a minimal set and uses screens onstage to occasionally show pre-filmed video montages. It's a clever way of giving the in-person audience a full experience while also presenting something to the online audience that feels like more than a traditional livestream. 

The Snow Queen is a story about two young sweethearts, Gerda (Lucy Wells) and Kay (Adam Langstaff). But romance is also brewing for Gerda's father (also played by Adam Langstaff) and Kay's mother, Dame Sigrid Smorgasbord (Steve Simmonds). When the Snow Queen (Natasha Lewis) and her minion Icicle (James Haggie) kidnap Kay, Gerda must find a way to get him back.

While they all have lovely voices, Wells is particularly charming as Gerda. Lewis shines both as the Snow Queen and as Primrose. Simmonds does an excellent job at getting the audience laughing and throwing himself whole-heartedly into the role of Dame Sigrid Smorgasbord. 

As intense as the story sounds, it's really more silly than scary and perfect for younger children despite the somewhat adult humor of Dame Sigrid Smorgasbord (which would likely go over their heads). A large part of the panto experience is audience interaction and the New Wolsey has done a great job of building that in, even for a digital audience. 

On the digital stream, you occasionally are shown the in-person audience, who are wearing masks and distanced within the theater. There is a section towards the beginning in which the Dame talks directly to the audience, cracking jokes and doing shoutouts that have been sent in. They also let you vote online to name the hammer (you have to see it to understand) during the interval. 

While it's not the same as being there in person, it's a great way to adapt it to 2020. The show opens with messages from different panto dames, counting down to the show starting. And once the show starts, they don't dance around Covid either -- addressing it in jokes head-on. 

Whether you watch it by yourself, with your family, or watch it at the same time as a friend or loved one that you're physically separated from, The Snow Queen is a fun way to get into the holiday spirit.

I was given a press ticket to this show for the purposes of review, but all opinions are my own. 

Photo Credit: Mike Kwasniak

Taking a Look at the Letter Library

It's perhaps not surprising that letters are one of my favorite things considering my love for history. I adore the letters that I send back and forth with my friends, the letters that I used in my thesis research on salonnières, and the letters that inspire musicals like Starry. So when I was contacted to ask if I would like to review the Letter Library, I was so excited. It's a fantastic historical letter subscription service and I couldn't believe I hadn't heard of it before. 

If you sign up for the Letter Library, you get two letters per month from interesting historical figures sent straight to your mailbox. There's a lot of variety in the letters chosen as they span different time periods, places, and cultures, but are all from recognizable names. You also receive a synopsis that shares some of the context of the letter. You can sign up for $12 a month or subscribe in packages of three, six, or twelve months. They also have a free email newsletter. 

The letters come in lovely brown envelopes that make it feel like you're actually receiving a letter in the mail. There's also a postcard that accompanies your first letter, as seen above. The letters are designed to match the period that they are from with different fonts and colors of paper. If the letter is printed in a cursive font, there is also a transcript to go with it which is definitely helpful. 

I received four letters for the purposes of review, which ranged from the comical to the historically significant. They were from Albert Einstein, Abigail Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The Abigail Adams letter was the one containing the famous "Remember the ladies" line and it was amazing to get to read it within the context of the full letter. My favorite, however, was the Mozart one in which he discussed his deafness. 

As a primary source, letters are one of the best ways to learn about history. They're able to give you small details that you might not get when reading about a topic and make historical figures seem more relatable and understandable. I've always found that reading letters helps me contextualize historical figures as actual people, rather than just symbols or concepts. 

It's hard to remember to go out of your way to read a new bit of history every month. I certainly often forget to, despite my best intentions. What makes the Letter Library so great is that it delivers history straight to your mailbox in an easily digestible format. I would highly recommend this service to anyone who wants to make sure they're regularly engaging with history and it would also be a great Christmas present if you have a friend or family member who enjoys historical letters. 

For more information or to sign up, visit the Letter Library website.

Review: Peter Pan, Barn Theatre

RATING: ★★★★

In this time of theaters where I live being closed, watching theatre digitally has become more important to me than ever. So I was thrilled when I was offered to review the Barn Theatre's new production of Peter Pan, a new play based on a favorite story of mine. I recently wrote about What a Carve Up!, an online production that the Barn Theatre was part of and it's clear that they are one of the best theaters in the UK right now at creating online content. 

This new version of J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan is a one man show starring Waylon Jacobs. Adapted by Alan Pollock and directed by Kirk Jameson, the show follows a man recreating his daughter's favorite bedtime story while on a video call with her from a hotel room. It's a creative way to stage the piece and it's impressive how much of the tale they are able to fit into a runtime of an hour, including direct references to and lines from Barrie's original work. The play does make a few changes to the story, including changing the "Indians" to the more appropriate "Amazons." 

Georgia Dibbs provides the adorable voice of the daughter who goads her father into a more extravagant telling of the tale, insisting, "Aren't you going to do the voices?" As the story unfolds, the staging becomes more elaborate with the hotel room set adapting itself to different places. The projections of drawings, designed by Benjamin Collins, are a very nice touch. The show is recommended for children age six and older and while it might be too intense for younger children, it's definitely perfect for school-age kids. 

Harry Smith's sound design, particularly the blending of the rain sounds in the beginning, is also impressive. If watching online as I did, you'll be seeing a livestream of the show rather than something pre-recorded. While it means that there is less flashy editing than in some filmed theatre productions, there are still multiple camera angles and it better recreates the feeling of being in a theater. 

Jacobs is very engaging and maintains a high energy throughout the show. It's admirable how he manages to carry it, without anyone else onstage. He also has a genuinely moving moment towards the end of the play that stopped me in my tracks.  This is a lovely new version of Peter Pan, sure to be enjoyed by children and adults alike. 

Peter Pan runs until January 3 at the Barn Theatre in Cirencester. Those seeing the show in person will be required to wear a face mask, have their temperature checked, and sit socially distanced. For more information or to buy tickets, visit the Barn Theatre website

I was given a press ticket to this show for the purposes of review, but all opinions are my own. 

Photo Credit: Eve Dunlap 

Ranking Every Star Wars Movie (A Guest Post by Hannah Ackman)

One of my greatest achievements of 2020 is that it's the year I finally managed to get my 17-year-old sister properly into Star Wars. One of her quarantine projects was watching all of the Star Wars movies (now that they're conveniently on Disney+) and she asked if she could do a ranking of the films on the blog. You might recognize Hannah from her previous guest posts on Amy March and Captain Marvel.  

During quarantine, I decided to watch all of the Star Wars movies, most of them for the first time. As I watched, I took notes and ranked them based on what I consider to be the most important qualities in a movie. Keep in mind that I am only seventeen years old, and while I am an avid movie-watcher, I ultimately just watch them for fun. 

First, you should know that I am clearly a sequels girl and Rey is my favorite character. I try to appreciate the older style and Anakin saves the prequels. The originals don’t hold a nostalgic place in my heart because I didn’t grow up watching them. Also, know that this ranking changes constantly for me, seeing as I watch about one Star Wars movie a week, so this is the most concrete I could make it. 

1) The Force Awakens (2015)

Honestly, this is such a masterpiece from the self-baking bread to the droids to the parallels drawn from the originals. It is Rey’s introduction, but we also meet Finn and Poe who are the single most iconic duo in the entire series. I strongly support Poe and Finn (“Keep it, it looks better on you”) because WHO DOESN’T? The feminism is unmatched with Rey and Leia, yet it isn’t forced. BB8 is my favorite droid (I even have a custom droid I made in Batuu named after him) and he gives this film the edge it needs to be at the top of my list. 

Additionally, this movie was the first Star Wars movie I ever saw, and it is what inspired me to watch all the others. It is my second most-watched Star Wars movie and I cannot imagine putting it anywhere except in first place. 

2) Rogue One (2016)

This is my most-watched Star Wars film and probably second most-watched film ever. Jyn is such an icon, especially when paired with Cassian (the most feminist man in the universe). There is heat, action, droids, and friendship, creating my ideal movie. The group of men (including Cassian) who fly and work on the ship are so iconic; they are just a gang having fun. The scene at the end with Darth Vader deserves a mention because it has such beautiful effects and high tension, but it is the perfect introduction to our villain and ties into the originals. 

3) The Last Jedi (2017)

What needs to be said other than I love Kylo Ren and the "force Skypes" are just so incredible to me. Don’t hate me, but I do not like Luke Skywalker. He has no loyalty, no passion, and quite frankly is rude to Rey. The scene at the end between Rey and Kylo saves the movie and is a large reason it got such a high ranking on my list. 

4) The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

The best of the originals, this movie has a lot of character building and iconic scenes. I love Lando personally, but the incest between Luke and Leia really bothered me having had that spoiled when I was a child. I have to appreciate the special effects for their timelessness and the vintage feel they give the movie; it might be more impressive than those used today simply because it was harder to execute. 

5) Revenge of the Sith (2005)

While I adore Padme for her resourcefulness and wit, the camaraderie between Obi-Wan and Anakin really shines in this movie. I was clearly emotional during this movie; my notes say things like “where you gonna hide that baby” and “I’m SO SAD”. Chewie’s cameo was a welcome surprise because it added a nice touch to lead into the originals. The worst part of this movie is how Padme’s character is ruined by making her seem so weak and helpless. The Padme from the first two prequels is simply not the same character whatsoever, and she would be embarrassed what they do to her in this one. 

Unpopular opinion: I hate Yoda. I think he ruins the impact of every moment because of the way he talks, his screeching nails SENT ME, and he looks like a kale gnocchi from Trader Joe’s. This animation of Yoda is also at the bottom (puppet Yoda is much better), but the effects overall are the worst out of all the movies (“that lava ain’t it”). 

The real thing that makes this movie stand out is the amazing chemistry between Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman and between Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen. I do have to disagree with the ending though because there is utterly no way Obi-Wan Kenobi would have sent away the twins; he would have become their uncle and raised them as his own. It’s not up for argument. A show of its excellence is that the moment I finished it, I rewinded it and watched it again…I have since seen it four times. 

6) Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Only a few seconds into the movie, I started disliking it over a tiny detail: the weird text. Why is it blue? Why doesn’t it scroll? Anyways, the part with Chewie was my favorite because it is just so cute. I found myself really bothered that it wasn’t Harrison Ford, although I realize that it would have been impossible to use him. My Lando obsession was satisfied, especially with the line “the grown-ups are talking." What. An. Icon. Qi’ra is very pretty and another strong female lead who, honestly, I found boring until the end. L3 takes the place of my second favorite droid because of her snarky comments about women’s rights. Not a movie I would watch every day or even once a month, but will I watch it again someday? Yes, without a doubt. 

7) A New Hope (1977)

I have mixed feelings on this movie because while I realize it is a classic, I find it very boring. However, I do like some of the characters from the originals such as Han and Leia. Han is a classic cocky pilot (do I have a type?) who is too charming to be good. In the originals overall, I hate every single scene with Jabba the Hutt because not only is he a sexist slug thing, but also I have to read subtitles (way too much work). While I would watch it again just for the little moments that are cute, I would never choose this over some of the other Star Wars movies. 

8) Attack of the Clones (2002)

There is so much good in this: the costuming, the iconic line about sand, Padme’s weirdly good climbing skills, but I have so many questions. Why does Anakin have a tiny braid? Why can R2D2 all the sudden fly? Did Padme’s shirt just disappear? Fett’s child really annoyed me, to the point I physically wanted to scream. The battle is far too long, in my opinion, but honestly I liked it. Padme is a strong female lead, she is a good political leader, and she is shown as being very capable. I finally understood everyone’s obsession with Obi-Wan, and I would watch again solely to see the scene where all three of them are tied up in the arena. 

9) The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

I will not deny being a very avid Kylo Ren fan, so it is no wonder that this movie ranked so low on my list. There were so many issues, I don’t think I can even cover them all. The ending lost major points, primarily because the filmmakers revealed that they had a different cut originally. All that pain was for nothing and I blame J.J. Abrams. Pro-tip: just stop the movie with 17:31 minutes left. 

Most of my problems come from bad decisions regarding diversity. Poe Dameron is previously shown as the Han-type of man who is cocky but also charming and sweet, not to mention him being the first major Star Wars Latino character. That being said, does absolutely anyone know why they decided to make him a “spice-runner”, practically the most disrespectful thing they could have done? They didn’t stop at the ruin of one POC character though, they had to also try to erase Rose’s presence and her entire plot line that was built in The Last Jedi. Without a doubt, they went for important fan moments such as the force ghosts in the temple (even including Ahsoka!) and a cameo from Lando Calrissian. Overall, I try to pretend this movie didn’t happen and I have only watched it twice (once in theaters, once for this article). 

10) Return of the Jedi (1983)

I said it already, but I’ll say it again: I HATE JABBA THE HUTT. This movie only heightened my hatred as not only did I have to go through the work of reading subtitles, but he is sexually abusing Leia. Another note on that scene is that I felt very let down by the entire sequence. I had heard about the iconic gold-bikini scene on other TV shows and on social media, but I felt very uncomfortable and underwhelmed. Yes, Leia is beautiful, but she looks awkward and I’m sure Carrie Fisher hated filming it. Han continues to improve, and in this movie, he has total Mamma Mia vibes. I don’t know how to explain it, but he does. They show Luke “turning to the dark side”, but I didn’t believe it for a second because it is so out of character for him. As much as I hate older Luke, young Luke is soft and cute. Overall, I like the bears, but I do not plan on ever watching this again. 

11) The Phantom Menace (1999)

Finally, we have reached the last film on my list. One I hope to never watch again, my apologies to Qui-Gon Jinn who is only featured in this one movie. The effects are terrible, Jar Jar Binks makes me want to slam my head into a wall, and it’s far too political compared to the rest of the franchise. I viewed it as more of a children’s film in the language used, yet it was very boring during their long political discussions. It wasn’t all bad though: tiny Anakin is perfect, my man Darth Maul tries to run over a random child in the desert, and they imply that Anakin is basically Jesus since he was born to a virgin mother. Overall, this film is embodied by one of my notes that I don’t remember even writing: “umm no”. 

These eleven movies are so special to three generations, and it’s insane how important they have become in my life just over the past eight months. I cannot wait to visit Batuu Galaxy’s Edge again and understand everything Disney has done to make it perfectly represent the world from the films. I also plan on watching Clone Wars, The Mandalorian, and other Star Wars content that is produced in the upcoming years. Most excitingly, both Nicole and I are asking for lightsabers for Christmas this year, so expect spinning content coming after December 25th. 

By Hannah Ackman

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