Hot Ice: the sensational skaters of Blackpool’s Pleasure Beach

02 Jun 2015

Between engagements at the Manchester international festival, I nipped over to Blackpool – insofar as anyone can nip on one of those sluggish local trains – to see Hot Ice at the Pleasure Beach Arena. It was my first ever visit to Blackpool. It was also the first time I had seen an ice show since childhood holidays in Brighton. I have to say I found it an exhilarating mix of dance, spectacle and acrobatics.


Combining moments of dazzling beauty with sheer speed, it was also a reminder that skating is a rare combination of art and sport. I gathered that shows under the generic title of Hot Ice began in Blackpool in 1936. But each show has a specific title, and this year it was Desire. (Since previous titles have included Passion, Allure and Entice, you get the general idea.)


The theme of Desire admittedly prompted some dubious voiceover narration (“My very gestures express enchantment … I feel myself a god”). But, once they cut the cackle and got to the skating, the results were sensational. The highlight was a version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in which the 30-strong ensemble twirled and whirled in azure costumes. Although the cast are not identified individually, there was also a standout redhead who, in her exuberant gaiety, struck me as skating’s answer to Shirley MacLaine. I was also impressed by the moment when the skaters were surrounded by a ring of fire which, oddly, reminded me of a similar effect in Peter Brook’s production of The Mahabharata.


One’s reaction, I discovered, also depends partly on where one sits. I watched the first half from my designated upper seat where you could appreciate the patterns of movement and see the skaters interweaving with the precision of the Arsenal attack on a good day. But for the second half, I moved to a ringside seat, which was actually more fun. From there one could hear the crunching sound of blades on ice and see the expressions on the faces of the skaters. I also sat behind a large family who were in raptures and who, at the end, reached out hands across the barrier as if waiting to be blessed by the speeding skaters.


TV’s Dancing on Ice has clearly increased the audience for this kind of skating spectacular. But Hot Ice, produced and directed by Amanda Thompson, who is also the managing director of the Pleasure Beach, predates it and is full of intriguing paradoxes. It blends art and commerce, aesthetics and athletics, balletic skill and extravagant kitsch. Even the title expresses a contradiction that goes back to A Midsummer Night’s Dream: offered the chance to watch a play about Pyramus and Thisbe which is merry and tragical, tedious and brief, Theseus sums it up as “hot ice and wondrous strange snow”. Back in 1936, were they aware of the Shakespearean allusion when they created this astonishing Blackpool institution?