Hans Christian, You Must be an Angel

Created by Paola Cardona, Phillipe LeFêbvre, Catherine Poher, Claus Helbo, Soren Sondberg, Bodil Alling, Joakim Eggert, Sille Heltoft, Kim Kirkeby, Arne Fich & Jacon Kirkegaard
Teatret Gruppe 38
Barbican Pit Theatre
(2011)

Hans Christian, You Must be an Angel production photo

This Danish company's show presents us with a birthday party for Hans Christian Anderson with twenty guests, the characters from his fairy stories. Joakim Eggert and Bodil Alling, dressed like chefs but calling themselves waiters, greet us in the foyer. He is excited and eager to get us in to see the show; she wants first to chat and have a chance to meet us. They tell us how they have got everything ready and invite us in, not so much as guests as to watch, which is just as well for there is no jelly, no trifle, no cake and certainly no party games. This is a very grand grown up setting.

There is a long table bright in the darkness with metal frame upright chairs around it but no people, though the table is carefully laid to match each guest's personality. We are told the Emperor is coming in his New Clothes and, when it is realised that he is so large has a double chair an extra place has to be found for "the woman with the eggs", a character I had never heard of but apparently she's in a poem.

That's the problem with this piece. Of the twenty stories listed in the programme nearly half I had never heard of and since we aren't told the stories and get little information about their characters, it is difficult to conjure up their presence. The assumption is that you know them backwards and the merest hint will help you create the character in your imagination.

Perhaps the audience is partly self-selecting and includes many young Hans Anderson aficionados but judging by the lack of response to an initial question from Bodil Alling to name a favourite story there seemed to be only one little girl quite sure she knew any of them.

I recognized the Snow Queen's chair because it had sledge runners underneath it and sleigh bells on the back, when Joakim Eggert poured out her wine it spread an icy mist around the glass, and the snowman had his muffler wrapped around his chair back. I was baffled by what appeared to be a pile of napkins on which a plate was circling above a fallen wine glass; only when Bodil placed a small ball on top did I notice a bed drawn on the plate and realized this was the Princess and her pea, though when a whole parade of knives and forks stood up to attention I knew that was where the Emperor was expected.

Anderson's own place had a quill pen quivering in his glass and magical writing appeared on his plate, while later the Ugly Duckling turned into a swan appeared in video in the open lid of a briefcase resting on his chair back. The chair that stood in a dish of water must, I suppose, have been the Little Mermaid, though I don't quite see why her soup bowl should have frothed soap bubbles. Something, perhaps anything happening was to show that an imaginary someone was at the table.

One delightful touch was that, when something went wrong (part of the show, not a hitch), the waiters asked permission to start again, to have a second chance - which gave a chance to have another go at catching things you missed. With the performers activating things and talking about them at the same time on distant sides of the table there was no way you could share in everything. .

The personalities adopted by the two performers and their easy interaction with the audience created a sense of sharing and enjoyment, pointing things out that might be missed, like the loudspeaker chair seat that kept on farting, or the tiny face projected onto an egg. Like any magic act there was a double delight of amazement at the surprising things that were made to happen and happening and of working out the cleverness with which they were done, whether by human, mechanical or chemical process.

I found the miniature video of the naked Emperor (so small you can't really see the naughty bits, so uptight parents needn't worry) shown on a tiny screen on the rear of his chair inappropriate since he was obviously outside but I loved some white butterflies that fluttered - at rest they were a bent up knife and fork.

Eggart's fingers burst into spontaneous flame at the Little Matchgirl's setting, and when the flames burned out we were told that death had taken her (one of the few occasions when we actually got an actual incident). When the swinging of hanging lampshades was accompanied by the sound of tolling bells to mourn her this simplest of effects was perhaps the most effective.

Since Hans Christian, You Must be an Angel was first created and won a Danish Reumert Award for Best Children's Theatre in 2006 this show has toured to many places. The producers suggest it as suited for age seven + and you need to be tall enough to see things easily on the table top to be able to enjoy it. Just going into a darkened space with this strangely arrayed table lit in the darkness was enough to excite the youngsters and it probably doesn't matter if they don't connect with all the characters, the live performers hold their interest and make sure they see enough strange things to keep them fascinated for the 40 minutes that it runs, but some stories would be the icing on the birthday cake..

"Hans Christian, You Must be an Angel" plays at The Pit until 2nd November 2011

Reviewer: Howard Loxton