Little Match Girl and Other Happier Tales is the last show of Emma
Rice’s tenure as Artistic Director at Shakespeare’s Globe, and is
touring before returning to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse later this year.
The show uses the little match girl, a character from a particularly bleak Hans Christian Andersen story, as a framing device to tell three more of Andersen’s fairy tales. The little match girl herself is a silent puppet, soulfully puppeteered by Edie Edmundson. She is adrift on the streets of modern day London on Christmas Eve, having her shoes stolen by awful drunken revellers and, in a profoundly dark twist, being preyed upon by passing soldiers. Ole Shuteye, a passing showman, takes her under his wing and, for every match she lights, tells her a story.
The design of the show, of all kinds, is stunning. The costumes, set, puppets and music are all dazzling, evoking a madcap circus/fairytale glitz and the desolate real-world streets equally well. The music is fantastic, and its use is sparing but perfectly judged.
This setup is extremely solid, so I was surprised to find myself disappointed by the first half. This is perhaps because the tale of Thumbelina is such a strange one, and I felt it was given too much time - an entire half a show. There was also something that didn’t quite click for me about the character of Thumbelina herself, who was a little too brash set against the quiet dignity of the match girl. There were a lot of moments to love it in (most notably some hilarious dancing beetles) but for me it didn’t quite click.
The second half, however, was pretty much perfect. There was more humour, which was needed to offset the upsetting nature of the setup. Niall Ashdown as the emperor (he also played the narrator) produced a moment of real hysteria in me and my friends. For childish reasons, perhaps, but then it is a kid’s show. We also whip through the tales more quickly, seeing The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Princess and the Pea (given a satisfying feminist twist) and the conclusion of The Little Match Girl itself. All the elements gelled perfectly, and as the real-world setting became more and more dark, the need for the fairytales was more apparent, and so they glittered more brightly in comparison.
I would offer a word of warning however - it really is a very, very bleak end to the central tale. If you’re taking children, you might want to read the tale yourself and prep them. I knew the ending, and I was in bits anyway. But it was not a gratuitous use of sadness - it was thoroughly earned.
Perhaps the best thing about this play is its anger. These tales of poverty, abuse and deprivation are as relevant now as they were when they were written 200 years ago. This is a production that says they shouldn’t be - that we should be able to do better.