Written by Daniel Swift and directed by Belle Streeton, Winter Wonderland is a multisensory immersive online performance intended for audiences with PMLD.
I shall start by assessing the actors’ performances. Emma Prendergast (playing the Snow Queen) and Sami Kali (playing Jack Frost) are wonderfully energised and captivating. Their expressivity and physicality are pretty much faultless, other than that movement is restricted to the torso at times where it ought to be throughout the body. Diction is great, as is intonation, and vitality and character are certainly perceptible in their signing – though I cannot critique them on accuracy, as I am notably unfamiliar with sign language (Makaton consultancy by Prit Chouhan). These are wonderful and endearing performers, dedicated, invigorated and credible.
Next, writing. This performance is certainly well written. With an overall simplistic narrative, which is commendable with performances like these, the content is easy to follow but does not lose its character and ‘mystical’ quality. It is also well structured, but multisensory elements, despite being the principal focus of this dramatic text, seem somewhat separated and disjointed from the main narrative. The audience, “Winterns”, are certainly referenced throughout, but the performance could certainly benefit from slightly more constancy in direct interaction and immersion.
And this brings me on to the multisensory sequences themselves (supported by sensory engagement specialist Joanna Grace). The objects we are invited to utilise, namely the hairdryer, are somewhat peculiar; however, they are objects widely accessible to audience members and are imaginative and resourceful, nevertheless. Whilst communicating the narrative effectively, the objects certainly have an efficacious and facilitative sensory quality. I just have an issue with the first multi-sensory sequence wherein the audience are invited to interact with their winter clothing, something they most likely would be doing during the autumn and winter months alone, without the aid of the performance, particularly given that the majority of this audience would be based in the UK, with the theatremakers themselves being based in Hull, which sees average highs of 2.2°C this time of year. This is perhaps underwhelming and unimaginative but worsened by the lack of introduction into this sequence. We are, notably, told to retrieve our winter clothing, but we are not told exactly what to do with it; instead, we are shown a silent sequence wherein Kali and Prendergast interact with their own clothing, and we must deduce that we are to do the same. This is the only totally silent sequence throughout the entire performance, and I would recommend greater attention be given to it. Currently, it stands out sorely as far too disjointed from and foreign to the rest of the performance.
However, the time that is dedicated to this sequence has been considered well. The duration is sufficient and well managed, with the interactions being wonderfully varied and functioning as guides for parents/guardians in supporting the audience members in their immersion.
This performance is wonderful and engaging, but it is far from perfect, and there are a few notable areas that rather compromise both credibility and overall cohesion. First, aesthetics. Aesthetically, I want more from this performance. Currently, it feels half-baked, from Kali’s dark blue coat contrasting heavily with the airy pastels we see elsewhere in costumes, to his white face makeup fading halfway down into his neck, revealing his true complexion underneath, to the roughness of Prendergast’s eyebrow makeup to the bog-standard kitchen scenery we see in ‘Ready Steady Snow’ as opposed to the distinctly hibernal scenery we see throughout. It is important that every aspect of the performance be refined, bold, discrete and distinct, especially with multisensory performances like this. In the same way that one would naturally recognise that a cushioned, soft and sensuous faux fur shrug will feel entirely different from the faux sheepskin lining of a coat, visual elements have the same effect on (and affect for) audience members. These should be better considered.
I must stress, however, that beyond these elements I have enumerated, aesthetics are very well-conceived and, overall, we arrive at a good sense of theme and visual appeal and cohesion. The images (artwork by Mark at Marked Perception) that constitute the wintery backdrops, in particular, are well designed and communicate theme and location splendidly, and that the image of the frozen machine should be animated so that the machine may appear as though it is being reinvigorated is most special and imaginative. Other visual effects, namely the emanating wisps from the Snow Queen, representative of her actioning her powers, are crisp and support material well. Wonderful inclusions.
As for music, there are a good few moments where it does not match up with the action. Music should be readdressed for this reason. It does, however, communicate theme and overall mood very well. Well composed and performed. Sound effects are used well, and sparingly, which is effective in this case. Particularly during the ‘Let It Blow’ sequence, background noise is significant and thus subtracts from the performance; I would readdress this.
More significantly – and this is more of an editorial/directorial concern – I do have an issue with how the actors generally ‘interact’ with one another. Filmed during lockdown, the actors were unable to perform alongside one another, and this results in green-screen solo performances which are then collated so as to appear that the characters are, indeed, beside another. During these ‘interactions’, there is an incredible lack of fluidity and synchronisation, with actors responding too late or too early, and flow and momentum become inevitably compromised. This is most subtractive and at some times rather frustrating. I would recommend in the future, if they are to produce works like this again, that the creatives record one actor first with a prompter speaking the lines for the other actor; next, the second actor watches or hears the recording back whilst they perform, reacting to it in time; then, in post-production (video editing by Katie Harriman), the prompter’s speech and the first actor’s doubled speech can be muted so that we only hear what we are supposed to: the two actors’ voices. This would have allowed for a more seamless and timely performance. At the moment, these interactions feel sloppy, untidy and strikingly amateurish.
There are some notable logical discontinuities in this performance as well, such as the fact that Jack, who built the machine so proudly, all by himself, would have no idea that the Snow Queen sources her powers from it. Also to question is that the machine should be broken in the first place because it has “frozen up”…surely the machine would be naturally resistant to the harsh winter climate if it were ever to function before? And surely the heat needed to unfreeze it would result in the characters’ prompt deaths, the precise fate that the two are trying to avoid? Simplicity is key, and so is logicality, and whilst remedying the situation with love is a beautiful and educational concept, it must still make sense. Overall, plot developments like these seem incoherent and ill-conceived and are poorly executed. However, admittedly, these elements do not subtract too much from our overall reading.
As I wrote above, Kali and Prendergast express their characters well. They also understand their intentions and motivations. But whether we do or not is another question. Given the audience type, I would recommend explicit detailing of character emotions and psyche. For instance, the performance should not merely rely on our ability to observe and ‘sense’ that Jack is too proud and conceited to ask for help; we should be explicitly told that this is the case. Of course, the Snow Queen references this, telling him that it is OK to ask for help, but her reason for having to ask this in the first place should be explicitly clear. It is not.
Overall, this is a very special and sweet performance with a great moral. Witty asides and quick innuendoes also make this performance enjoyable for parents and guardians, and this is most favourable. I would just recommend that all elements, even these, be accessible to the principal audience members. There are quite a few sequences as well as witty asides, for example, where the actors stop signing altogether, especially towards the end. This should be avoided. Nevertheless, a good performance.