In the original Hans Christian Anderson story, the Little Match Girl dies and goes to heaven. In Emma Rice’s dark retelling we just get the death and a lot of soul searching. Not an uplifting ending to a Christmas season family drama. If only it could have concluded with either paradise or The Emperor’s New Clothes – which was a joy to behold.
The Bristol Old Vic Theatre’s The Snow Queen 12 months ago hit the mark with the darkness of the story coupled with a happy ending, plus great songs, excellent storytelling and extremely funny set pieces. In contrast this production seemed more aimed at adults who appreciated the overall theme of homelessness and alienation in a set that took its style from run down backstreets where violence lurked. Children in the audience appeared slightly traumatised at the end although in places their laughter and appreciation of aspects of the drama were clear.
Fortunately much of the content of four stories are dominated by the ring master come emcee Ole Shuteye, played with an irresistible effervescence by Niall Ashdown who doubled up as the Emperor in one of the production’s stand out scenes as he strips off his cloak. And the drama was rich in movement, song, dance and physical theatre with the story of Thumbelina climaxing with a terrific fight between Karl Queensborough as Toad and Katy Owen as the tiny girl trying to escape to freedom. Edie Edmundson controlled the exquisite Little Match Girl puppet somehow triumphing over cramp as she was on her knees for much of the evening. Using puppets is fine but at times for smaller children in the upper gallery or dress circle they were hard to see.
Over the river at the Tobacco Factory, Beauty and the Beast with considerably less investment hit the right balance of wonder and storytelling, the darker side of fairy tales, but also humour and hope. It’s as if Rice simply tried to cram too much in emphasising the darker side without anything fluffy and accessible for the youngest in the audience.
At times the overall drama seemed confusing with a number of themes including those of war, rejection, stranger danger, domestic violence and homelessness leaving the audience with a mixture of feelings by the end. It’s a pity as there’s so much to enjoy with a first class cast – from the choreography to the musicians, and from the lighting and sound, to the costumes inspired by Edwardian vaudeville.
This review was originally published on HarryMottram.co.uk