The Little Match Girl – Sadler’s Wells Digital Stage

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Writer: Hans Christian Andersen

Choreographer: Arthur Pita

An unrestrained burst of creativity, dance company Ballo Arthur Pita’s The Little Match Girl is a richly imaginative take on the fairytale original.

This adaptation has been filmed for Sadler’s Wells Digital Stage, with director and choreographer Arthur Pita taking on the Hans Christian Andersen classic. Pita’s company uses a dance-theatre aesthetic with high production values, and that becomes immediately obvious within the first few minutes of The Little Match Girl. It is filmed on a bare stage – apart from a scattering of Victorian rooftops and a full, bright moon. The dancers and musicians provide the rest.

Re-set in an imaginary Italian town on Christmas Eve, the Little Match Girl (played by Corey Claire Annand) has come to the end of her day as a match seller, with matches still unsold. Likely to receive a beating from her father on arriving home, she decides to wander the streets instead, lighting each match to stay warm. She lights a solitary match for her late grandmother – the only relative to treat her with care and kindness.

Pita’s presentation of Andersen’s fairytale uses a blend of ballet and more contemporary movement, with brilliantly realised costumes and make-up. The costumes are recognisably Victorian: grey, wilting rags for the poor, and colourful exuberance for the wealthy. The macabre, expressionist make-up echoes the dance style, as the choreography favours strong lines and unpointed feet. This production certainly pushes down into the Nordic roots of its source material.

The Little Match Girl meets friends and rivals on the streets – an intimidating gang of boys threaten and steal money from her – and she tries her best sales pitch on a wealthy family, travelling with food and presents to a Christmas party. With great group work from Angelo Smimmo, Karl Fagerlund Brekke and Faith Prendergast, they shun her at first, and then the jibes get crueller. Hans Christian Andersen’s moral universe may be sharply polarised, but the lines are bluntly drawn as comment on a society capable of better, but resisting real and substantial change. As the last match burns down to its embers, the extremes of poverty and excess convey what is at the heart of Andersen’s story.

But there is also a sense of lightness here as well, with the key addition of live music by Frank Moon. The sound is richly evocative, heavily influenced by European folk with a left-field introduction of a theremin during the latter scenes. Tonally, we steer away from the unerring bleakness of Andersen’s fairytale, and Ballo Arthur Pita adds a dusting of Christmas magic, with dance and song routines that are full of joy. As the production breaks away from Andersen, and into a fantastical, dream-like third act, it’s hard not to be moved. These are big, beautiful ideas executed with minimal staging.

Arthur Pita’s vision of The Little Match Girl may look and behave differently on the surface, but at its core remains Hans Christian Andersen’s central metaphor: whatever happens, we are always capable of finding light through the darkness.

Available here until 4 January 2022

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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