Book, Music and Lyrics: Brendon Milburn, Valerie Vigoda and Rachel Sheinkin
Director: Oliver Kaderbhai
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
With so much expectation focused on Christmas from at least early October, we forget that just a week later New Year’s Eve brings further pressures to have an amazing and memorable evening. At the end of a busy year, like Brendan the protagonist of Striking 12, all you really want to do is hibernate until it’s all over, but this new production at the Union Theatre may well fill you with festive cheer.
Working late on the last day of the year, stressed and angry with the world, Brendan decides to shun the parties and demanding friends, to have a quiet night at home. After dismissing a girl selling lights door to door, Brendan cannot settle to anything, so he starts to read Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl which so interrupts his peace of mind he determines to find the light bulb seller and make amends.
If Martin McDonagh’s frustratingly bizarre play about Andersen at The Bridge Theatre is one of 2018’s biggest disappointments, then this charming homage to one of the storyteller’s most memorable creations does much to repair the damage. With just one act, Striking 12 is a brief and arguably underdeveloped musical with limited character development but Oliver Kaderbhai’s production wrings every ounce of value from its 65-minutes.
It’s central character also references the story arc of one of Christmas seasons’ most famous grouches, Ebenezer Scrooge, as the lonely Brendan is brought back to life by the emotion and humanity of The Little Match Girl. Brendon Milburn, Valerie Vigoda and Rachel Sheinkin’s book and songs play with two intertwining short stories, merging a couple of hours from Brendan’s night with recreated scenes from Andersen’s tale to help the protagonist find a purpose and meaning for the new year ahead.
In the small Union Theatre space, Kaderbhai’s production has a company of just five actors and a pianist, providing all the additional music (a guitar, tambourine, violin and drums) and multiple character roles between them. Events move quickly and seamlessly from scene to scene, and while largely set in Brendan’s New York flat, the group convincingly evoke the cold and treacherous streets of 1840s Denmark.
Much of that is down to Alex Lewer’s warm lighting design that uses flame colours of gold and orange to create warmth, while Kaderbhai and Marah Stafford’s choreography adds depth to what could almost be a concert performance. Creating a sense of crowd and overwhelming bustle with so few actors is really well done, while in Resolution, for example, the removal of Brendan’s jacket is used as a sparring point between him and the Narrator which helps to build the narrative.
Declan Bennett is excellent as Brendan, jaded, desperate to alone and haunted by a relationship break-up that he cannot reconcile. He plays with the meta references nicely, resenting the Narrator’s orders, but the anger builds as the injustice of Andersen’s story takes its toll on Brendan, frustrated by the ongoing hypocrisy in both eras. Bennett’s rock-inspired voice is a delight in Last Day of the Year and concluding number It’s Not All Right, bringing plenty of charisma that has you rooting for him despite a relatively slender role on the page.
Bronté Barbé’s The Match Girl is saddled with a number of very samey songs, but her voice is full of emotion as she dramatizes Andersen’s character all on her own, as well as the bubblier modern-day light bulb seller who doesn’t seem to need Brendan’s help. Danielle Kassaraté, Kate Robson-Stuart and Leon Scott fill in the blanks as a number of other characters balancing the humour and darker moments well.
Striking 12 is an incredibly sentimental musical with a number of flaws, but Kaderbhai’s production makes the best of them with inventive choreography and charming performances that do much to cover the cracks. With a range of musical influences from blues and country to upbeat funk and musical theatre, it is an engaging hour that, in this season of goodwill, reminds us that by helping someone else we might just help ourselves.
Until 23 December 2018 | Image: Tom Grace