Coming to Bristol after opening at Shakespeare’s Globe last year, The Little Matchgirl is Emma Rice and Joel Horwood’s beautiful, touching and dark exploration of storytelling. As suggested by the title, the Matchgirl is central to the play, despite the brevity of Hans Christian Anderson’s original story. Selling matches alone on a cold snowy night, the Matchgirl meets Ole Shuteye (Niall Ashdown), a fantastical storyteller and his band of performers. With each match, she pays for a story; Thumbalina, the Emperor’s New Clothes and the Princess and the Pea are performed for her.
The Matchgirl is a puppet, and the focus and delicacy of her movement is one of the most impressive things about the production. Played and puppeteered by Edie Edmonson, she’s frequently on the fringes of the action, watching rather than participating. This lack of involvement could so easily let the life drop from the puppet but instead the immersion is so complete that when you see her react to the action out of the corner of your eye you almost forget she isn’t a real child.
The movement throughout the show also displays the total focus of the cast, even more impressive when it seems so effortless. The silliness of the ‘Shuteye players’ meant that incredible feats of acrobatics would suddenly erupt from clownish dances, especially in the astonishing fight performed by Guy Hughes, Katie Owen and Karl Queensborough.
The dialogue is witty, exciting and frequently meta-theatrical, with rhyming verse being broken and subverted by the characters in a way which reminded me of David Grieg’s unrivalled Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart. These interruptions were symbolic of the way that these characters often took charge of their own stories, arguing with the narrator. What was most interesting about these was that these arguments were not always about the characters empowering themselves – just as often, they were holding themselves back while Shuteye cajoled them to take action and aided them in their journeys.
There are so many uniquely well-crafted moments in the play, but my personal highlight were the avant-garde fashion designers in the Emperor’s New Clothes. They showed perfectly the mix of irreverent humour and precise performances which gave the show its spark. This section also, inevitably, showed the best of Vicki Mortimer’s costumes, lavishing silliness on the actors through capes and coronets and skirts three people wide. It was the highlight of a design that was beautiful and responsive throughout the show.
Originating in the confines of the Sam Wanamaker theatre, the intimacy of the show seems to have varying mileage in the Bristol Old Vic. In the stalls it feels like the audience are welcomed into the show – between a child’s loud ‘urgh’ when a love story was mentioned being responded to by Shuteye and real life imitating fiction when a child from the audience shouted out ‘he’s all bare’ at the Emperor in his new clothes, audience interventions where some of the most fun moments of the evening. However from the gods, the tiny puppet of Thumbelina looked so small that it could easily be alienating.
Despite the fun and frolics this can be a deeply uncomfortable play. The phrase ‘dark twist on a fairytale’ has become a cliché in the theatre world, but this is still the darkest collection of fairy tales I’ve seen. All the more because it isn’t darkened by upping the amount of blood and guts, but through references to paedophilia, domestic violence, war, refugees and most prominently poverty and inequality all being nodded to in the stories. I felt taken aback by them, so used to seeing them in plays where their inclusion had to be excused with a message, or a defiant lack of one.
In the play, Shuteye explains that the awful things of the world cannot be hidden from children, and these stories are a way of making them be seen. He makes a good point, and this play does what he says, showing the audience the problems in the world in the safety of a story. But sometimes very real issues are seemingly included just to raise the stakes of the stories. The material is handled deftly, but at least one moment just doesn’t sit well. A glancing joke about the recent sexual assault scandals was awkward, unneeded, and – most importantly for a joke – just not funny.
Whilst it may not always be the cosiest, this is still a Christmas show for all the family. I suspect many adults will be coming out thinking about the unseen underside of the holiday season while their kids are enthusing at the beauty and fun.
The Little Matchgirl is on at Bristol Old Vic until 14th January. Book tickets here.