wed 22/05/2024

The Little Matchgirl, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse | reviews, news & interviews

The Little Matchgirl, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

The Little Matchgirl, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Hans Christian Andersen made contemporary, infused with Emma Rice's trademark brio

Message and medium, desolation and imagination in 'The Little Matchgirl'Bill Knight for theartsdesk

For anyone disposed to treat the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse as hallowed ground – and such issues have gained much currency at the Globe recently following the announced early departure of artistic director Emma Rice – The Little Matchgirl may seem like a wanton deconstruction of its space, which is cheeked into a knowing update that comes close to Edwardian music hall, and with aperçus stingingly relevant to the venue’s recent backstory (“Candles are much more atmospheric than

electricity” is one such textual quip). For those less reverentially inclined, this adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen – Joel Horwood has ingeniously melded the title story into And Other Happier Tales, as the subtitle has it, drawing in addition on “Thumbelina”, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Princess and the Pea” – is a phenomenally agile, open-hearted 100 minutes of theatrical flair that also keeps us unflinchingly anchored in the present.

Happiness for Andersen, in life as well as literature, was a very relative thing, and “The Little Matchgirl” must surely be one of the saddest stories ever written, if we disregard its faux-redemptive Victorian ending. Rice, who co-adapted this show with Horwood, creates a world defined by a sense of damage as much as anything else, where strangers bring threat rather than potential comfort. Not least in the opening scene which introduces the title character – the Matchgirl is a puppet whose soulful face conveys more than anything pained bewilderment, skilfully brought to life by puppeteer Edie Edmundson (pictured below) – who seems to be growing up in a warzone. It's a landscape that feels uncomfortably close to home (the conflicts of the former Yugoslavia come to mind), and later morphs into a refugee camp; both are environments in which the idea of extending assistance to the helpless seems painfully absent, while the threat of exploitation or abuse is omnipresent. When help does seem to be offered – by a soldier figure in that first scene: benign or sinister, we are left to wonder – it comes with strings attached. As Thumbelina later discovers, “No such thing as free.”

Horwood’s rhymed verse strides along, enjoying its demotic poetry 

The counterpoint to this world where survival, living “for now”, depends on luck, is escape. In Andersen’s story, each match that the Matchgirl strikes brings her not only warmth but also momentary transportation into the imagination, “a place to dream in”. Infused with the writer’s spirit (more than his letter), Horwood’s adaptation introduces the figure of Ole Shuteye (Paul Hunter, rambunctious, pictured bottom, centre), from another Andersen story, as an impresario-compère whose vaudeville company plays out each such excursion (into a new Andersen story). His troupe is completed, we shouldn't omit to mention, by one “Deidre, on loan from Bridlington Rep”, the kind of lovely touch which brings with it a very nice sense of place (Britain) and time (somewhere on the cusp of the Victorian and Edwardian eras).

Vicki Mortimer’s design relishes such period detail and heights of fantasy equally, moderating the formality of the Playhouse with a rural landscape backdrop (which suggests a past tranquillity very lacking from the precarious present inhabited by these protagonists), while running riot with costumes, harlequin black-and-whites set against rich reds. This is never more so than with the fantastical creatures of “Thumbelina” and their elaborate head-pieces: that is the longest, and somehow most organically linked episode, connected to the opening by shared themes of exploitation and escape. Thumbelina (Bettrys Jones, puppeteering her own tiny self) appears in a “makeshift city” – hard not to think of the now-closed Sangatte – and can’t escape the baleful attentions of father and son Toad and Mole. Kyle Lima and Jack Shalloo play (and sing) those two winningly, and are perhaps the most agile shape-shifters in this nimble cast of only six (not counting puppeteer Edmundson), but it’s a close-run thing when movement comes as thick and fast as it does here (choreography, Etta Murfitt). The ensemble playing is near-perfect.

There’s something of a change of tone as the show moves into “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, a satisfying satire on the vanities of fashion: Jones and Shalloo play a couple of über-camp couturier tricksters, boiler-suited and parodically accented like they’re fresh off an echt-Düsseldorf catwalk, who deliciously outwit Hunter’s deludedly vain Emperor. The closing episode, “The Princess and the Pea”, rather dips in energy and invention after all that.

Horwood’s rhymed verse strides along, enjoying its demotic poetry – which is frequently very funny, sometimes ribaldly so – and sense of the occasional bathos of the form itself: end-rhymes like “lowered expectations/see nations”, or “making a statement/beyond abatement” relish their incongruity. Stephen Warbeck’s score, ranging from oud to double bass, is no less inventive, and he’s credited with additional lyrics too, which suggests that textual collaboration, together with Rice, was close all round. If Brecht and Weill were writing today, The Little Matchgirl is just the kind of Songspiel they might come up with.

The piece's achievement is to combine delirious imagination of structure with a keen sense of being anchored in a distinctive reality, one to which the show finally returns. Invention is over, revels ended, and we are back on the unforgiving streets, “poetry” only one letter away from “poverty”. There’s surely another presence here, too, none other than Dickens (whom Andersen revered), whose appeals to human empathy are familiar. You might even trace it all back to the end of the RSC’s legendary Nicholas Nickleby, except that we’re in a bleaker world now, one where “happy endings are past.”

There will be no happy ending for the idea of a winter season family show at the Globe either, given Rice’s pending departure: it will be the venue’s loss. Despite all the fun of upstaging the conventions that come with the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, including dropping chandeliers and embracing the upper gallery – not to mention the conceit of a play about lighting matches staged in a candlelit space – I couldn’t but wonder whether The Little Matchgirl might actually come across even better at, say, the Lyric, Hammersmith (where Horwood has presented a number of past Christmas shows). The show’s spirit somehow begs for a somewhat more democratic ambience.

Emma Rice creates a world defined by a sense of damage as much as anything else, where strangers bring threat more than potential comfort


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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It was the RSC that did Nicholas Nickleby, not the National.

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