The Little Match Girl is not just my favourite Hans Christian Anderson story but my number one fairy tale of all time. Wonderfully dark, it has the power to play havoc with your heart strings and sink you to the depths of despair, while somehow managing to arouse hope. I remember driving through Birmingham in December 2007, listening to Kylie Minogue narrate the tale on Jo Whiley’s Radio 1 show: then in my late 30s, I had to pull over because my tears were dangerously blinding me, so much empathy does it demand. I’ve also read Gregory Maguire’s melancholic fan fiction of Andersen’s fable, Matchless, wanting to find out more about (someone else’s) take on this sad story.
So, I was delighted to hear it was coming to Bristol most majestic and respected theatre, Bristol Old Vic. What extra magic could Co-Adaptors, Writer Joel Horwood and Director Emma Rice (of Kneehigh and Shakespeare’s Globe fame), weave into this tale of poverty and child-abuse, conditions both still so prevalent in today’s society? How would the cast and creative team warm our souls on this extra cold December evening, mindful as we all are of the thousands of people living on Britain’s streets right at this moment?
For starters, the short masterpiece has been interlaced with three of Anderson’s less tragic tales, The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Princess and the Pea and Thumbelina, told by narrator (and Anderson character) Ole Shuteye, who is summoned by the starving and frozen young girl with each strike of a life-extending, warmth giving, imagination-inspiring match. And, surrounded by a competent cast of actors, musicians and puppeteers, it is Naill Ashdown’s characterisation of Ole Shuteye that really cements this production – he is Master of Ceremonies/Story Teller/Ringmaster extraordinaire with excellent comic timing, taking the audience into his confidence, extending his knowledge to us as well as to the Little Match Girl, a silent, wide-eyed puppet, manipulated by Edie Edmundson, who transforms the nameless child into a shivering little body eager for the warmth that Ole Shuteye’s stories can wrap around her.
Special mention should be made of Katy Owen (Thumbelina/The Trickster), who we’ve come across at Bristol Old Vic before in 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tip. In both her role as Lily in that Kneehigh production and here as Thumbelina, Owen is adept at youthful joy and devilment. Her Thumbelina is vulnerable, sweet and feisty. As the Trickster, Owen teams up with Guy Hughes to con The Emperor and together they are a comedy duo of the slapstick variety as they fashion an expensive suit of absolutely nothing for the vain ruler of the land (played with humour by Ashdown). Hughes is responsible for another fun highlight as he joins Karl Queensborough and the pair shake their maracas in well-known Latin American song as Mexican beetle border control guards and, we imagine, a parody of Donald Trump’s policies of keeping those very ‘Wetbacks’ out. Our BOV Sleeping Beauty lead of a Christmas past, Karenza James, takes to bed again, this time as the suffering Princess (and the Pea) but Bravo! because her Princess is no push over and will not be manipulated by any man.
It’s difficult to lighten the mood of a Hans Christian Anderson tale with three more of his tales because all of them are so blinking sad! It’s just that some have slightly happier endings in them or, otherwise, can be jollied up by an energetic team as this, especially when you throw in ‘The Swan Vestas’ musicians Dave Johnzy, Alex Heane and Jon Gingell, who, joined by Elizabeth Westcott, aka Jackson, relay the story in their own way, accompanying the actors and puppeteer through each heart-aching then spirit lifting twist.
If you’re familiar with Kneehigh or perhaps Sally Cookson’s work at the Old Vic, this production won’t be anything ground-breaking as it treads many of the same steps. Rather, it’s a proven and cosy formula that will give you a glow, whilst making you very aware of how times don’t really change. A tear fell from my face at the close of the show. How could it not?
The Little Match Girl and Other Happier Tales runs at Bristol Old Vic until 14th January 2018
- Image by Steve Tanner, with thanks