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Theatre Review Seasonal light and darkness in Emma Rice's illuminating Matchgirl

The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales
Bristol Old Vic

IN MANY ways, this production of some of Hans Christian Anderson’s best-known stories is traditional Christmas fare, complete with witty rhyming couplets, bright inventive costumes, song, dance and audience interaction and a spattering of jokes.

But it is so much more. The Matchgirl, a mute war refuge, is a vulnerable puppet who burns her matches to conjure up other stories narrated by a music-hall performer and his vaudevillian troupe.

Each tale, decreasing in length as the matches burn less brightly, reflects current social and political concerns.

Thumbelina is refused asylum by maraca-wielding beetles, trafficked by Miss Mouse and imprisoned by an abusive and blind war-veteran mole, while the vain emperor’s new designers are an evident pastiche of the fashion world’s pretensions and the princess sleeping on a pea has a sharp modern twist too.

The cast of seven and three musicians take on multiple roles to generate engaging characters who sweep us between stories, interact with puppets and create much of the stage magic without relying heavily on special effects. Stephen Warbeck’s memorable songs, creating both humour and pathos, are beautifully woven into the stories, while Joel Horwood’s engaging script self-consciously plays with the artificiality of the rhyme scheme.

It's difficult to highlight individuals in such an ensemble performance, but at the heart of Emma Rice's winning production are Kerena James, whose strong vocal qualities and animated stage presence invest the diminutive Thumbelina with appropriate dynamism, and Niall Ashdown’s hackneyed and self-promoting music-hall performer, whose tales grow increasingly desperate in response to the shivering Matchgirl.

The mix of styles and techniques, humour and sadness engage and enthral as we're swept from fits of laughter and audience interjections at the idiocy of the naked emperor to a conscience-pricking conclusion which brings a lump to the throat as the last flame dies.

The homeless waif, alone in a freezing urban wasteland with only the soundscape of London traffic as a dirge, perishes too.

A gem of a production — a real marriage of style and substance.

Runs until January 14, box office: bristololdvic.org.uk

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