The Little Matchgirl (And Other Happier Tales) by Emma Rice and Joel Horwood is a fragmented, fractured piece of theatre. In a basic way, it’s apportioned by being composed of a series of stories by Hans Christian Andersen and others, yet this sense of being a multiplicity of things runs deeper. Taken at surface-level this play is a multi-mirrored disco ball, but the more you try to grasp it, the more it dissolves in mercury, goops through your fingers and falls to the floor.
Put another way, there’s a huge amount going on here. Some of it works and some it doesn’t. The whole, therefore, feels a bit rough, like a final draft that could still be given a few decisive edits. At points it even seems like the characters themselves don’t quite know what to do with the story they’re presenting. Ole Shuteye (Paul Hunter) weakly-but-hopefully proposes, “and the Little Matchgirl lived happily ever after,” before conceding that this is, in fact, not true. Despite being inconclusive in many ways, the patchwork of ideas still combine quilt-like to create something at times comforting – and at others emphatically not.
But more on that later, as first we still have more matches to burn and more stories to tell.
The first story to tell about The Little Matchgirl is one filled with joyfulness, colour, clowning and song. This is a Christmas show like the up-turned contents of an Edwardian toy box. Furry flittering field mice, tiny Thumbelina and brass-buttoned soldiers are all here, but with everything a little off-kilter it’s the vintage shop version of this year’s windows at Liberty’s. There’s also harlequin prints, ruffs and pantaloons shrunk to create court jester costumes, and Marie Antoinette wigs morphed into bobbing, tottering fascinator versions. That’s at the more traditional end of the costume spectrum. There’s also a nudey onesie with dangling cock and balls, which I hold in my mind whilst remembering how I pre-emptively convinced my friend’s whole family to buy tickets to this for when they visit from Texas at Christmas.
I sincerely hope they enjoy it.
Because there is, in addition to the unclothed emperor, a lot of things to enjoy about The Little Matchgirl. [Too many to mention, so I’m picking two.] There’s the performances, particularly from Akiya Henry as the pissed-off Princess after her pea-interrupted night and as the creepy field mouse with glasses borrowed from the Pink Ladies in Grease. In compère role, Hunter is a brilliant combination of melancholy and slapstick clowning. There are shades of Lear’s fool at times, particularly when he sits down in the snow next to the bare-footed title character.
The other story to tell about The Little Match Girl is how all this patterned, choreographed jollity is counterbalanced with despondency and terror. The very first scene involves a modern day soldier (Kyle Lima) whose playful interaction with the little matchgirl is quickly undercut by him taking her hand, about to lead her off to who-knows-where.
The abusive Mr Mole (Jack Shalloo) is even more disturbing, keeping Thumbelina trapped in a forced marriage whilst barking orders in her face until she starts to crumble. The horribleness of some of the scenes makes the characters in them become modern versions of the bad creatures in all fairy tales, not just those written by Andersen. The enticing offer of food and warmth uses to bait Thumbelina reiterates the scariness of the witch in the gingerbread house that Hansel and Gretel find themselves in. The dread of the bullying Mr Mole makes real why parents throughout the ages require a way of telling their children not to go into the deep dark wood, either literally or metaphorically.
Finally, there’s the story of the Little Matchgirl herself. It’s her name on the bill yet the puppet doll (operated by Edie Edmundson) spends most of the production mute and to the side of the action. Like all the children suffering from poverty that she represents, everyone in the room knows she is there, but no one really wants to to focus on her. If you know Andersen’s story in advance then its possible to spend the majority of the play knowing the conclusion and knowing the end that awaits her, yet also ignoring it and focusing on the singing and dancing and the nice bits. Perhaps also hoping, like Ole Shuteye, that someone will have rewritten it and we’ll get that happily-ever-after instead.
She ends, as it happens, as a tiny limp body cradled in camouflaged arms. We know this image, we can fill in the repetitive drag of the sea at his feet. On the way home, I sit on the tube thinking of Victor Hugo’s “grass must grow and children die”. And I know that one is inevitable and the other, in so very many cases, is not.
The Little Matchgirl is on at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 22nd January 2017. Click here for more details.