Just as you begin to feel like you have a handle on how Christmas shows should operate trust Emma Rice to come along and turn things on its head. Sure, there is plenty of silly jokes and manic set pieces to keep the little ones entertained but Little Matchgirl And Other Happier Tales has a serious moral at its heart and is never prepared to let it be pushed to the side. It makes for a slow burning night, one that doesn’t automatically reveal its rewards but keeps plugging its riches long after the curtain has gone down.
Rice, the most playful director and one who brings great joy in her work with Kneehigh and at The Globe, has created a show where darkness constantly threatens to permeate the festivities of Christmas. Original fairy tales went to some pretty dangerous places, modern life (as demonstrated here) isn’t all tinsel and calorie loading joy either. As Black Friday and New Year bashes grow exponentially, child poverty in the UK is on the rise. The Little Match Girl may have her origins in the Victorian era and snow flecked tales of Hans Christian Andersen but that child can still be found today in most towns and cities across the country today.
This dual time line is made explicit upon the Bristol Old Vic stage where three modern buskers hover around a fire keeping the chill out, while the tales told are presented by an Edwardian theatre troupe led by Niall Ashdown’s Master Of Ceremonies Ole Shuteye. Over the course of the two hours of traffic upon the stage three tales are told each time a match is struck:Thumbelina– which gets the whole of the first act to weave its tale of the little girl making her way in the world; The Princess And The Pea where love is questioned and spoilt by tests, and best of all The Emperor’s New Clothes in which hipsters get to work on creating an outfit au naturale for a vain Empire- Ashdown again in side splitting form.
Having premiered last year at The Globe it plays Bristol this Christmas before embarking on a National tour in the first part of 2018. A brand new cast manage to take ownership of roles that the original actors would have taken agency off during rehearsals (always tricky) and there is especially convincing work from Katy Owen as a bossy Thumbelina and a Shoreditch fashionista and Karl Queensborough whose strong tenor helps make art out of Stephen Warbeck’s score.
It’s a work that never talks down to its young audience, its darker moments ensure it is really only appropriate for those 10 years and above, while giving them plenty to roar at, a certain costume shows men’s dangly bits can be funny across the generations. It’s a show that I admire more than love but for a deeper Christmas experience The Little Matchgirl is hard to beat.
The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales plays at Bristol Old Vic until the 14 January 2018 and then continues to tour.