IT’S THE Christmas television family highlight. Every year, a nation’s hearts are stirred by the scene in the animated classic The Snowman, when its boy hero and his frosty companion take to the skies to Howard Blake’s classic song Walking In The Air — a soupcon of serenity amid all the festive madness.
However, as I spin around 15ft off the ground on a Wednesday afternoon in central London, I can assure you that walking in the air is not half as blissful as it looks. Not blessed with powers of levitation, I am instead harnessed up and attached to a wire above the stage of Holborn’s Peacock Theatre, where the theatrical adaptation of The Snowman returns for its annual run.
First seen in 1997, this dance-filled version of Raymond Briggs’ classic story, about a boy who goes on a night-time adventure with the titular friend he has built, is now as much of a seasonal staple as the cartoon and plays to hordes of delighted children up to 15 times a week through the Christmas period. And in a break between shows, the team have kindly given me the chance to recreate its stand-out aerial moment.
On hand with some flying advice is Martin Fenton, the dancer who plays the Snowman. ‘The biggest challenge is to make it look like you’re walking in the air, rather than getting moved from side to side,’ he explains. ‘You need to make it look like you’re in control.’
To do this, he advises me to focus on keeping my legs moving. It proves to be easier said than done. ‘Because of how the harness sits on your body, it’s very difficult to do anything with your legs,’ explains Martin, ‘so you have to fight against it and really pull your knees high towards your chest, like you’re climbing.’ This definitely does not feel like floating in a moonlit sky, whatever the famous song may claim to the contrary.
Martin is now in his eighth season in the role, but says returning to it each Christmas still gives him a thrill.
‘It hasn’t lost that novelty,’ he smiles. ‘Every time I come back to it, it feels like the first year for me again.’
That is, in part, because of the ineffable magic of the story, but also because of its rare simplicity. ‘There’s no dialogue in the cartoon or the stage show. The body language and the movement tells a story. I think that’s what makes it feel ageless.’
Nevertheless, it still requires plenty of effort to bring it all to life — certainly from this novice’s perspective. Winched up, I try to channel Martin’s grace, having seen him perform the scene a few days previously. But, as I try to hold my head up high and look out to the stalls, while somehow keeping my arms and legs in motion despite the pressure from the harness strapping me in, I feel more like I’m wading through concrete. Worse still, I have a nasty suspicion it may also look that way. Then again I don’t quite have the ‘real’ Snowman’s pedigree.
Before becoming a dancer, Martin was a Great Britain gymnast, specialising in acrobatics, so he knows a thing or two about contorting himself. Even for him, though, the scene — which he performs twice a day — is uncomfortable. ‘There are three places where it hurts,’ he explains. ‘Around the waist and the hips, under the legs and across the shoulders.’ But that show-stopping moment isn’t the only big challenge he faces each night. There, is of course, the fluffy white costume to contend with, which ironically makes this chilly character a sweaty one to perform. You just try dancing a pas de deux with an Ice Princess while dressed as an anthropomorphic snowman.
‘It’s technically advanced, even in the studio without the costume, because I’m using classical ballet technique. To then perform it in the costume is really hard. It’s really difficult to make that control come through.’
But it is all worth it for those pint-sized theatregoers’ awestruck reactions, not least on the point of lift-off. ‘Kids are often surprised, because they’re not sure if we’re just jumping or how we got up there,’ says Martin, ‘and then when we’re fully up, they understand what’s going on. You hear the gasps.’
Among the many Martin has delighted has been a future king: the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have taken Prince George to see the show. ‘That was actually George’s first theatre experience. I was in the Snowman suit when I met him afterwards and he was a little bit scared, but he loved it and it was great to be able to perform for him.’
So, what will the Snowman be doing come Christmas Day? ‘We get just the one day off, so it will involve me lying on the couch under a blanket falling asleep in front of the TV,’ says Martin. By contrast, this wannabe will be allowing himself at least the rest of 2019 to recuperate.
■ The Snowman is at the Peacock Theatre until January 5, 2020, sadlerswells.com