Review: The Little Matchgirl, Buxton Opera House

 

Just occasionally a piece of theatre captivates, charms, disturbs and moves like no other experience can. The Little Matchgirl is one such event and Buxton audiences are lucky to have the opportunity to relish the magic and beauty of this production.

This co-production by Shakespeare’s Globe and Bristol Old Vic was first produced in 2016 and this version has been touring since before Christmas and the late snowfall set the tone for what is essentially a winter show.

Drawing on some of the familiar stories by Hans Christian Andersen and using puppets, on-stage musicians and a versatile cast of seven the production by Emma Rice does, she says, “blend my love of folk tales and their deeper meanings with contemporary politics and a rage against poverty”.

The first half of the show is largely the tale of Thumbelina (Katy Owen and puppet) who seeks and finds shelter but at the expense being captive of a toad (Karl Queensborough) and his son, Ralph, (Guy Hughes) and then of Mole. She is rescued and saved by a Swallow. Running through the whole piece is, of course, the story of the Little Matchgirl (Edie Edmundson is the puppeteer and it’s as moving an experience as you could hope for).

She is homeless and cold. She scrapes a living selling matches to wealthy, self-absorbed by-passers but trades her precious matches to hear stories of hope and escape told to her by Ole Shuteye (Niall Ashdown) and his troupe. (Including the mostly silent Jackson – Elizabeth Westcott – a stooge who has the last word).

In the second half she hears a story about vanity, The Emperor’s New Clothes, and love, The Princess and the Pea. The Emperor is told, of course, that his magical new clothes cannot be seen by fools and idiots; sadly for him most of the audience fall into that category and his ‘vanity’ is shamelessly exposed. (This moment is priceless). The Princess (Kezrena James) is tested with a pea buried beneath a mountain of mattresses but she proves herself properly delicate and fit to be a bride.

All of this delights and distracts us and the Matchgirl. You will have spotted references to Tommy Cooper and Eric Morecambe, but the clowning can only delay the inevitable. Back in her real world – and one not so far from our own – the cold persists and in the absence of shelter the Matchgirl succumbs. The limp puppet lays centre stage and tears fall just as the bitter snow fell.

Buxton Opera House has done well to book this top class touring production and full houses are deserved.

The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales can be seen at Buxton until March 10 for tickets click here.

Keith Savage 

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