Plummy Reviews: The Snowman at Chester Cathedral

One last review until festive radio silence!

For all the angst over Christmas, there are some Christmassy things that time and experience simply cannot tarnish. It’s fair to say that, for me, most of these come from my own (less complicated) childhood.

I wasn’t aware at the time how I was laying down markers for my older self to retrace earlier, much simpler, happiness. Pritt sticks and pots of glitter, the crackle of wrapping paper, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (Temple of Doom was later); all of these act as a kind of festive catapult to fling me back to the early 80s. And, somewhere in there, there was the music.

First there were the nativity carols that we all learned off by heart for the adoration not of the Magi but the parents. The ancient and new pop songs by Slade, Wham and Brenda Lee (later Mariah Carey and the gods that were The Darkness) all sank into our subconscious so deeply that it feels irreligious to play them at any other time of year.

2003 y’all!

Ah, but even more important than all of those, were the haunting vocals of Aled Jones in The Snowman. It debuted in 1982 when I was very young indeed (really I was), which may contribute to my feeling that it has always been there, but I think there is something else in that. It’s had such longevity because it tapped into something essential about Christmas.

The Snowman is permeated with the seasonal thrill of magic. Snowmen coming to life, reindeer flying, Santa coming down your chimney to leave presents, your parents actually letting you stay up late and eating all the chocolate you can find: anything goes. Children seem to be able to make friends anywhere and what could be more exciting than creating your own best friend who can fly you away on an adventure to a magical land?

At first it seemed strange that the cartoon was not narrated but it was a quick and easy lesson to show how music can speak for itself. Then, finally, when the impossible happened and the boy and the Snowman lifted off into the snowy sky, Aled Jones’s soaring voice took over. The subject of a million playground interpretations and impressions, Jones’ original score still has the power to pin you to your chair. No wonder it has remained so popular for so long.

For the past couple of years, Carrot Productions have been staging showings of The Snowman in regional cathedrals. The premise is simple but fabulous: a full orchestra (The – fantastic – Picture House Orchestra) performs the music of The Snowman in front of the audience whilst the film plays overhead on large screens.

This year our closest cathedral was Chester. Chester? Just before Christmas? Watching The Snowman? With a live orchestra? In the Cathedral? YES PLEASE!

We filed into the north aisle and awaited the start. It didn’t take long before we were all seated and the lights dimmed to start the show. The orchestra was gently introduced to us with a Christmas Overture that revealed the virtuosity of the musicians as they covered seasonal songs that the children could easily recognise.

Shortly afterwards there was an animated film narrated by one of the orchestra that revealed the different sections one by one through music, strings and percussion being our favourite.

Swiftly following on was a little cartoon called A Donkey’s Tale by Daniel Whibley that followed the story of a donkey in Connemara on the West Coast of Ireland. We were so gripped that we managed to miss the live donkey walking down the aisle right beside us until it had moved on several feet!

Luckily, alert as we now were, we didn’t miss the Snowman as he danced through the cathedral, waving as he went. The kids were thrilled that he’d made an appearance and he might even have gone some way towards making up for missing the donkey.

At last, the lights dimmed once again and opening chords of The Snowman began. It’s beautiful. It always has been beautiful. It only comes out once a year which helps to keep it special but, with such long acquaintance, it needs complete representation to make it sound new once more. In the cathedral, I learnt all over again the true meaning of the word ‘soaring’, especially applied to music, and how it can grab you by the heart strings and pull you upwards into the air.

It reminded me as well of the nature of cathedrals as the original performance spaces. Even in our modern age of hanger style warehouses, stadia and shopping malls, cathedrals still have the power to awe you into silence. How much more awesome must they have been when the largest building you would have known would be the parish church? Once covered in murals, fabric, gemstones and pattern, ringing with chants and song and wreathed with incense smoke, they must have blown the senses of all who entered. Seeing and hearing the orchestra here, in the semi-darkness, whilst The Snowman swooped overhead, paved a little path back into that medieval experience for us.

Needless to say, it was over too soon. The orchestra and the young soloist took their bows (and standing ovations) and we were shown the (South) door back out into the real world. A Christmassy Chester awaited us and we mooched about the market and found a pub in a little stone courtyard to have an after-show drink and catch up. It turned out that there was a church in the courtyard sandwiched between two pubs and built on top of some Roman remains (par for the course in Chester) which brought a certain elan to our squash and ready salted crisps.

In summation, Carrot Productions are doing something really lovely here and the chance to team a Christmas favourite family film with an ancient building like a cathedral is one not to be missed. At about an hour, it’s just enough to engage young kids without boring them. Moreover, introducing children from a very young age to live performances of classical music is, I think, an important cultural opportunity. It has the power to move you like nothing else.

Tickets tend to sell out extremely quickly so, if you’re interested, get yourself on the mailing list for future performances and, perhaps, be ready to travel to your ‘nearest’ destination. Next year, I’ll try and get tickets in the nave (right in the centre) to feel more part of the experience. Although we had our own screen in the north aisle, as with the south, we could only glimpse the orchestra between the (admittedly very fine but huge) sandstone columns!

Carrot Productions are touring with Wallace and Gromit this summer if that is more your kind of thing: catch them whilst you can!

4.5 plums (minus a half for being in the north aisle because tickets sold so quickly!)

I’ll book more quickly next year!