Writer: Joel Horwood
Director: Emma Rice
Designer: Vicki Mortimer
Composer: Stephen Warbeck
Choreographers: Etta Murfitt & Annie-Lunette Deakin-Foster
Reviewer: Leah Tozer
On a cold Christmas Eve, a little match girl lights her last matches for warmth; imagining a home full of love, she keeps hope and herself alive for a little while longer. There are little match girls – alone, homeless, hopeless – all over the world, and Hans Christian Andersen’s story is still a powerful and poignant one, and more prescient than ever. Bristol Old Vic’s The Little Matchgirl, a co-production with Shakespeare’s Globe, is a bold and brave choice for a Christmas show, and it burns brightly.
The other tales – vaudevillian vignettes overseen by Niall Ashdown’s revelatory, wry, rhyming emcee – while fanciful and fun and fantastically performed, have to fight to find their feet. Striking a match to tell each story, the emcee takes the match girl through a kaleidoscope of Andersen classics: a bold and bellowing Thumbelina blossoms as she falls in love with a soldierly swallow after a life of struggling to be a little girl in a big world. The emcee couples as the emperor with new – or no – clothes in the most comic creation, as his rococo-styled court welcome two charlatan stylists – the wonderfully ridiculous Katy Owen and Guy Hughes – who play their trick on the court’s pride. And lastly, a lonely prince can only love his princess if she is tender enough to feel a pea through a pile of mattresses, but this tale has a more tragic end than the one we all remember, punctuated by a pitiful lamentation about pain – ‘if you cause it yourself, can you still call it pain?’ – sung like a mournful lullaby from above by the beautiful lyrical voice of Karl Queensborough. There are some witty and wistful threads that weave the tales and the Little Match Girl together, as an unseen war rages on in the background and the bag that bore Thumbelina becomes the emcee’s only belonging in the poignant epilogue, but the escapism can’t quite find its place beside the politics.
Yet, the storytelling is stylistically stunning. Puppeteer Edie Edmundson plays the Little Match Girl with a playfulness that glows with life and longing, a trio of talented instrumentalists (Jon Gingell, Alex Heane, and Dave Johnzy), bruised and battered and opening the show as buskers, fill the silences in the storytelling with a folky score to match the tales’ folkloric footings and are occasionally accompanied by violinist and actor Elizabeth Westcott in the more mournful moments, and Vicki Mortimer’s malleable, motley costumes transform the characters into toads, tricksters and temperamental emperors without losing the essence of simple storytelling.
The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales takes storytelling head on, drawing on Andersen, one of the most transcendent of all storytellers, to ask what stories we should be telling: as our emcee says to the Match Girl, “I’m not telling your story”, and as the moving epilogue moves towards its politically resonant finale, it suggests that no stories, even sad ones, should be left untold. Though at times discordant, this production strikes a real compassionate chord, and as that’s something we should all remember at Christmastime, perhaps this amalgamation of escapism and politics and poignancy really is the perfect Christmas show for the world we live in.
Runs until 14 January 2018 | Image: Steve Tanner