The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales at Shakespeare’s GlobeCultureTheatre
An elegant alternative to London’s surplus of seasonal pantos, The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales ushers in the Globe’s eclectic winter programme. Artistic Director Emma Rice chose to adapt Hans Christian Andersen’s folk tale about the little girl who sells matches on the icy streets, perhaps an odd choice considering just how devastating a narrative it is, but a beautiful and relevant story all the same. Wisely, Rice has thrown in some other Andersen fairytales to make it a cheerier affair. Fusing puppetry, song and rhymes all set to a three-piece band, the effect is a vaudevillian romp with just the right helping of pathos.
The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (the Globe’s indoor theatre) is an attraction all on its own: starry-ceilinged, gilt-trimmed and lit entirely by candlelight. The matchgirl strikes real matches to keep warm throughout the show, and the power of that real flame bursting into life on a dim stage is profound.
Other visual delights include a pop-up book that gives Thumbelina a paper forest to wander through; an expanse of blue fabric transformed into violent rapids; and a princess descending gracefully from a hatch in the ornate ceiling.
Writer and co-adaptor Joel Horwood has borrowed a character called Ole Shuteye from elsewhere in the Andersen canon and positioned him as the driving force of the piece. Each time the little girl lights a match, he materialises to hearten her with a magical story. Paul Hunter portrays Shuteye with sublime silliness. He and his singing, dancing troupe keep the core of the show upbeat.
The little matchgirl herself is a life-size puppet handled deftly by Edie Edmundson. She leans forward on her knees, watching intently as each tale plays out, but she never speaks. Using a puppet in the title role is clever: surely there can be nothing more heartrending than this fragile doll with bottomless black eyes, only given life when a human deigns to operate her.
Although this piece teases with moments of colourful escapism, it is ultimately confronting. It’s a reminder, at a time of year when we tend to forget, that childhood poverty is not confined to fairytales. “Imagine you’re tiny in this brutal world,” sing Shuteye and his troupe as they present Thumbelina. Hans Christian Andersen’s proclivity for finding the beautiful in the downright distressing has found a fitting vehicle in this soulful production.
Photo: Steve Tanner
The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe from 24th November 2016 until 22nd January 2017, for further information or to book visit here.