The Child in the Snow
Wilton’s Music Hall
Reviewed – 2nd December 2021
“audiences will enjoy the carefully crafted seasonal atmosphere both within and without the auditorium”
The Child in the Snow is an adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Old Nurse’s Story, and this year’s holiday season show at Wilton’s Music Hall. In keeping with the tradition of presenting other ghost stories for the winter season—such as the perennially successful A Christmas Carol—one can readily see why playwright Piers Torday would choose this kind of material. And yet, adapting The Old Nurse’s Story demonstrates that it is no easy feat to craft a ghost story for the stage. In all other respects, The Child in the Snow is a clever and resourceful production—the set (designed by Tom Piper), lighting (Jess Bernberg), composition and sound effects (Ed Lewis) and the video effects (Hayley Egan)—provide just the right chilly atmosphere for this haunting narrative.
Let’s take a closer look at the source material for The Child in the Snow. Piers Torday has written a very helpful and informative article, Gaskell’s Ghosts, in the programme. And thank you, Wilton’s, for providing a free programme in the form of a printed newspaper. Torday provides some useful background about The Old Nurse’s Story. There’s also a reference to Mamilius, the ill fated young prince of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. It’s a lovely connection to The Child in the Snow, because Gaskell’s story is also about an ill fated child, and it is also set in winter. But there the similarity ends, because, as we know, Mamilius never gets to finish his tale.
Gaskell’s story begins in a present where main character’s children are listening to a story about their mother’s lonely, friendless childhood in a forbidding mansion decaying on the Northumbrian Moors. This is a technique that works well in novels—telling a story set in the past—and it can also be successfully adapted for film and television, using flashbacks. But the theatre presents a different problem. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to use flashbacks, and the narrative needs to be set in the present (at least from the protagonist’s point of view). It needs to be linked to a goal that the main character is trying to achieve. Torday’s solution in The Child in the Snow is to update the narrative. Our heroine, Hester Thornton, is a World War One combat nurse who has lost her childhood memories through trauma. Her goal is to try to retrieve them by hiring a medium named Estelle Leonard. Hester brings Estelle back to her childhood home in an attempt to remember. So far, so good. But the set up for this situation requires a lot of storytelling to establish the backstory. And the backstory is the heart of the tale. Just as important, the trick with ghost plays is how to reveal the ghosts, and when. It’s analogous to the problem of putting a gun on the stage.
When we think about A Christmas Carol, or Hamlet, or even Macbeth, we can see that the ghosts in all these stories have an important function in the drama. They tend to appear right at the beginning of the story, and/or at a crucial moment in the plot. By contrast, the plot of The Child in the Snow has a leisurely beginning that feels as though it belongs to an entirely different, though just as powerful, story. I won’t provide spoilers, but by the end of The Child in the Snow, audiences should be able to see for themselves the difference between this show, and other plays with ghosts in them.
The Child in the Snow gives its two performers, Debbie Chazen and Safiyya Ingar, plenty to do. They are ably directed by Justin Audibert. Chazen takes on several roles (sometimes as a medium channeling her spirit guides, or else simply stepping into another role with the help of a costume piece and/or a different accent.) She also provides some delightful comic relief.
Ingar has the tougher task, in some respects, playing Hester Thornton. The role of Thornton is simply overwhelmed with narration. And there are really two parts to Thornton’s story that don’t link together all that well. The story of the lonely child, and that of the combat nurse. Despite the problematic set up, though, The Child in the Snow has plenty of blood chilling moments. But when all is said and done, The Child in the Snow takes one step too many away from the haunted old home of its source material.
It’s always a pleasure to spend an evening at the Wilton’s Music Hall, and audiences will enjoy the carefully crafted seasonal atmosphere both within and without the auditorium. Some may come away feeling, however, that reading Gaskell’s The Old Nurse’s Story around a crackling fire in a creaky old house, is a better way to get the full phantom. And they’d be right, because The Old Nurse’s Story is a great ghost tale, perfect for the season, and deserves to be better known.
Reviewed by Dominica Plummer
Photography by Nobby Clark
The Child in the Snow
Wilton’s Music Hall until 31st December
Previously reviewed at this venue in 2021: