The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales

Joel Harwood from the Hans Christian Andersen originals
Shakespeare's Globe and Bristol Old Vic
The Lyric, Theatre Royal Plymouth

Something of an emotional rollercoaster, Emma Rice and Joel Horwood’s retelling of a small selection of Hans Christian Andersen’s well-known tales is dark, dynamic and daft.

Opening at the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse as part of Rice’s swansong The Winter Selection, this is a quirky blend of folk tales, underlying meanings, contemporary politics and extreme poverty. There’s laughs aplenty but the piece packs a powerful social conscience punch.

Stranger danger, silliness, slavery (modern, trafficked and to fashion), slapstick and war are strange bedfellows but jaunty rhyme, clowning and live music sugarcoat the lesson.

The Little Matchgirl is a puppet, beautifully observed by Wondering Hands Theatre co-founder Edie Edmundson who infuses such life into her that there were more than a few tears as the inevitable chilling ending is quietly played out. But such a thoughtful touch to bring her into the line-up to take a bow reminding youngsters that this is theatre even if the message is real.

There is an age guide of nine plus which is about right as, even though the panto-esque posturing, flamboyant ensemble and playing for laughs is fun, paedophilia, domestic violence, refugees, war and homelessness are part and parcel of that which Rice considers awful but should not be hidden from children.

With a glimpse of festive bonhomie or a story to be had for the price of a match, end-of-the-pier, half-man, half amazing emcee Ole Shuteye (perfectly played by Niall Ashdown), the world’s best storyteller, and his vaudevillian motley troupe meld music, puppetry, panto and pathos in a couple of hours of, at times uncomfortable, delight.

Diminutive Katy Owen (a Rice favourite and, having also seen her gawky Malvolio, I can see why) is spot-on as a feisty orphaned Thumbelina. Her epic journey from war through lowered expectations to paradise is littered with lusty, lovelorn frogs, duplicitous, trafficking field mice, butterflies, injured swallows and violent, jealous and strange moles. A tad overlong and bleak, the message is perhaps buried a little too deep for a young audience.

Owen rocks up again as Teutonic trickster to the fashion-obsessed, magnificent and humble Emperor (Ashdown again) who is made to ‘suck it up’ and pay shedloads of cash for the ultimate in haute couture—a crushed diamond and dolphin saliva design better even than Dolce and Banana or Vivienne Deadwood we are told.

Slapstick, silly walks, tettering wigs, ridiculous accents and audience involvement lightens the mood with the eagerly awaited great reveal the ultimate in bare-faced (and everything else) cheek. What a onesie.

Guy Hughes is an angst-fuelled Prince who loses his pea-detecting Princess (Kezrena James) through a lack of trust, Owen winds a side-story between the tales as a tipsy, loud and well-heeled shopper hastening the Matchgirl’s demise and epitomising the equally devastating effects of not noticing, not caring and actively abusing the needy while Karl Queensborough and Elizabeth Westcott complete the very able beetle, dirty scroungers and everyone else-playing ensemble.

Vicki Mortimer’s set is simple and effective. Two-sided large ‘boxes’ and myriad ladders translate into wintery streets, dark back alleys, showy court and more with pop-up London and miniature lit-houses affording a glimpse of a wider world.

Live onstage music is tremendous. Jon Gingell’s crew, bolstered at times by the multi-talented actors, shuffle about with double bass, guitars, accordian and percussion to add a poignant or buoyant dimension or apposite diversion—excellent.

A clever, thought-provoking and profound exploration of the basic human needs of shelter, companionship, food and clothing. Dark indeed but dynamic.

Reviewer: Karen Bussell

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