The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales
Malvern Theatres, March 25
Review by Lee Farley
‘THE LITTLE Matchgirl’ – Emma Rice’s final Globe Theatre production – pulls out all the stops to tell four familiar Hans Christian Anderson stories.
Puppetry, live music, comedy, colourful costumes, smart design, outstanding ensemble performances, and a tremendous script by Joel Horwood bring an amazing, contemporary show to sparkling life.
The production does not flinch at the darker aspects of these nineteenth-century stories. The tales resonate with contemporary relevance as they explore loneliness, pain, fear, and a lack of basic human compassion. There are references to war, domestic violence, and refugees. The nightmarish side of the fairy story is prominent here, not via cartoon blood and guts, but via candid, modern, uncomfortable truths.
The little matchgirl is a puppet, operated with astonishing focus and skill by Edie Edmundson. Her journey frames the other three tales. She’s cold, abandoned, and keeps herself alive through the magic of storytelling. We empathise entirely with her, but we’re petrified of what happens when the stories run out. “Stories are broken, there are no happy endings.” The other three tales are full of love, truth, pain, dreams, journeys, and honest examinations of the ways in which people treat each other. There’s hypocrisy, greed, vanity, violence, and cruelty, but the stories are always presented with humour, dynamism, and control.
Two expert reviewers from Perfect Circle Youth Theatre came along to see the show with me, and they agreed that there was sadness, comedy, and excitement contained in this thoroughly enjoyable performance. We all particularly enjoyed the costume reveal in the Emperor’s New Clothes, perfectly timed by the terrific Niall Ashdown, multi-rolling as the Emperor and top-hatted showman Ole Shuteye. Niamh liked how “the same actors played lots of different characters and crazy animals. The puppet was brilliant, she walked, breathed, and cried. You forgot she wasn’t real.” Gemima thought that the story was “very realistic. The harsh reality of the woman punching the homeless man, and when Mole attacked Thumbelina made me feel uncomfortable, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. This is a real story which could be happening now”. We were all impressed with the music, the rhyming text, the stage-fighting, and the fantastic acting. There was so much to discuss afterwards we could have written twenty reviews.
Sometimes the modern references are overt – I particularly enjoyed mention of the latest England batting collapse – but most are more subtle, and fully earned by the company’s commitment to telling important, resonant stories. Stories that don’t compromise for a young audience. Stories that feel vital, that we need like the little matchgirl needs them to stay alive. The production closes with an appeal to the audience to contribute to Malvern Foodbank. This inspiring, challenging, imaginative, cautiously optimistic and entertaining production asks us all to consider how we treat each other. It asks us not not ignore the lonely, the cold, the poor, the different from us. It’s packed with heart and humanity, compassion and love. “Stories are rewritten in the dreams of lovers.” The tour is heading back to London, we’d all encourage you to see it if you can.