Theatre in the Quarter and Christmas - for Chester, this has become as essential a festive combination as TV and Morecambe and Wise, Only Fools and Horses or Doctor Who.

But the company and its artistic leaders really had their work cut out this year - following something as memorable and acclaimed as last year’s extraordinary A Christmas Carol .

They have responded in typically innovative style by choosing subject matter light years removed from Dickens with a version of what is arguably Hans Christian Andersen’s most complex and disturbing fairy story.

 

Two devoted friends - Kai and Gerda - are torn apart when Kai (David Edwards) is not only abducted by the evil Snow Queen (Cassandra Charlick) but also robbed of all his emotions when a sliver of glass from the Mirror of Reason is embedded in his heart.

Distraught but courageous Gerda (Katie Foster Barnes) sets out on a long and treacherous journey to rescue her best friend from the clutches of the cold-hearted queen.

It is an oft-told tale but director and adapter Russ Tunney does the usual Theatre in the Quarter trick of coming up with something so unusual and distinctive, you forget you have ever heard the story before.

This is partly due to the setting. TiQ are known for seeking out non-theatrical venues and while St Mary’s Centre is not as versatile a space as the Town Hall was last year, it forms the perfect backdrop for Judith Croft’s visually arresting sets and the imaginative video projections created by Helen Newell.

Something else this group does so well is weave the skills of a professional cast with a talented company of enthusiastic non-professionals.

This provides an opportunity for some great ensemble singing at key moments in the production but also leads to such scene-stealing sequences as the younger members of the cast waddling on to the stage as a bunch of mischievous penguins!

The main roles are taken by some familiar TiQ faces such as Michelle Long and David Edwards as well as a couple of welcome additions from this summer’s Chester Mystery Plays - Winnie Southgate and Cat Stobbs - both of whom make tremendous impressions as the Princess and Robber Girl respectively.

But there is no denying that Australian actress Cassandra Charlick commands the attention every moment she is on stage with a suitably statuesque regal presence as the titular protagonist.

And all credit to her for not playing it as a conventional villain - she is so alluring that it comes as no surprise whatsoever when Kai falls under her spell and follows her literally to the ends of the earth!

For me, however, the entire production was stolen by the irrepressible Ben Tolley who dominates the action virtually from start to finish in a number of roles - especially The Sorceror and raven Huginn - a charismatic showman with a permanent twinkle in his eye.

Which brings us to the one element without which no TiQ extravaganza could exist - the incredible music of Matt Baker.

Many of the company’s past productions have been period pieces but having a pure fantasy to compose for has allowed Baker to inject a variety of styles which again demonstrates that nothing is beyond this man’s capabilities.

I can’t be sure whether he composed all the songs before the casting of Charlick but having a star whose sensational voice enables her to be torch singer one moment and opera diva the next must have had an influence. Some of Baker’s best music can be heard in this show.

But probably what I love most about Theatre in the Quarter projects is how they are the very definition of family entertainment. It may be based on a fairy tale but this version pitches itself at a level which can be appreciated on its own merits by young and old alike - a stage version of Pixar, if you will!

Only one moment crops up when adults snigger to the bafflement of the younger audience members - the unexpected but delightful pinching of a joke from the movie Airplane!