Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl is not the type of story you’d return to very often. So you might be surprised to find, on reading it as an adult, that it is exactly as you remember it to be: an elaborate, but bleak depiction of a destitute girl dying of frostbite on a night of festive celebrations as she lights her remaining unsold matches to keep warm. There’s not much else in terms of a narrative, although the author did try to capture the girl’s final moments as a series of hallucinations.
Arthur Pita’s dance theatre adaptation of the story, however, is extraordinarily dynamic, eventful and even funny in places. It is clearly a team effort, endlessly inspired but always coherent. Composer Frank Moon underscores the proceedings live on stage with a variety of instruments – even including a brief theremin concerto!
This new version of Andersen’s story is set in Italy and the overall effect is so convincing it had me checking whether the entire production was not in fact on an international tour. It is not often one sees theatre in the UK made with such dramaturgical clarity, such taste and such courage. At one significant point the mock 18th century world of the piece is catapulted into the land of sci-fi so confidently and resolutely one can’t help but follow in good faith. There is also a reward to be had in doing so, as it provides the titular heroine with her own happy ending.
Without taking anything away from Andersen’s uncompromising condemnation of avarice and selfishness, Pita and his team add to it by bringing it effortlessly up to date. Ruthless competition, bullying, the rat race and the suffering of the present day homeless are all readable within the 70 minutes suitable for those aged 5 and above. Yet this is ultimately a piece of art, graceful and elevating, and masterful in so many ways.
The Little Match Girl is on at Sadler’s Wells until 30th December 2016. Click here for more details.