On his ninth birthday, Gwyn Griffiths is given a wooden box by his whimsical grandmother Nain and told he must use the contents of the box to discover if he has inherited his ancestor’s gift of being a magician. Perplexed by the seemingly ordinary objects – a brooch, a scarf, some dried seaweed, a whistle and a broken metal horse – Gwyn (Joey Hickman) is enigmatically instructed by Nain (Anne-Marie Piazza) that he must simply “give them to the wind” in order to reveal if he is a sorcerer.
The multi-talented IO Theatre Company apply their penchant for storytelling through the media of music and physical theatre to adapt Jenny Nimmo’s award-winning and majestic tale The Snow Spider. With a mesmerising and original score composed by James Lark, we are transported to the rural wilderness of Wales, where Gwyn’s parents have little time for thoughts of magic as they are too consumed by grief for their daughter Bethan, who mysteriously disappeared during a storm four years ago.
Be it the harp, the violin, the tambour, or even the running of a wet finger around the rim of a wine glass, each and every one of the cast is an extremely talented musician. None of the ensemble leave the space once, and if they are not in the scene itself they provide atmospheric accompaniment. As well as superb musicianship, I particularly enjoyed their use of vocal sound effects to create ambience: for instance, the farmyard noises they produce provide a level of verisimilitude that a pre-recorded soundtrack could never have hoped to achieve. The beauty of this production of The Snow Spider lies in the simplicity, as a real sense of magic is achieved knowing that no special effects or tricks are being used. From the sound effects to the visuals created during the climatic storm, all are produced by the young and zealous cast. For me, such an accomplished work performed on a shoe-string budget really is fringe theatre at its finest.
The ensemble move swiftly to play an array of characters. Personally, I think the most memorable character and stand-out performance is Piazza’s depiction of Nain. Frustrated that she too doesn’t share Gwyn’s gift, she repeatedly tries and fails to perform magic – let’s just say her floating egg trick culminates with a splattered yolk on the floor of the Tristan Bates Theatre. As well as comic timing, Piazza has a real gift as a raconteur as she captivatingly brings tales of Welsh legends and folklore to life. The depiction of the titular ‘Snow Spider’, who Nain names Arianwen, is both clever and charming. The effect of the scuttling spider is created by each cast member carrying a glistening white glove in their pocket, that they wear alternately. Visually, it is particularly effective when a character like Gwyn’s best friend Alun (Andrew Holloway) is delivering a piece of dialogue whilst wearing Arianwen: he responds to her rapid movements (imagine Thing from The Addams Family going wild) almost as if Arianwen is a completely separate entity. Once again, this is testament to the idea that effects do not have to be complicated to be compelling.
Just as in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, where the bed is able to fly just through a bed knob that the Rawlins children believe to be magic, The Snow Spider instils in the audience the idea that magic can be found in the most ordinary of household objects. The Snow Spider is a simple but spellbinding production, with a multi-talented cast that are both great musicians and actors. I left the theatre having learnt a fair bit about Welsh folklore and with a strong desire to learn the harp.
The Snow Spider is playing at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 10 January. For tickets and more information on future tour dates, see the IO Theatre website.