Emma Rice’s farewell to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre has a stunning presence on Theatr Clwyd’s stage. The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Stories was first adapted and directed by Rice for the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in November 2016. It has been revived a year later for the Bristol Old Vic and will go on from Mold to tour Chichester, Oxford, Plymouth, Buxton, Liverpool, and Malvern before returning to the Globe for it’s final performance on it’s original stage. The cast is small – Katy Owen and Karl Queensborough, alongside Guy Hughes, Zezrena James, Elizabeth Westcott, and Niall Ashdown – but it weaves encapsulating stories for both the audience and the little matchgirl, a puppet expertly brought to life by Edie Edmundson. The performances provide a nuanced version of the pantomime-style acting that we have come to expect from shows around Christmastime and New Year.
The play takes the well-known Hans Christian Andersen’s character – the little matchgirl – and launches her into a war-torn twenty-first century country. Alone and cold, surrounded by people making merry, ignoring her or trying to take advantage of her, the small child has one form of solace. The matches that she tries and fails to sell grant her stories, told to her by the fantastic Ole Shuteye and his band of Shuteyes. Ole Shuteye retells the stories of Thumbelina, The Emperor’s New Clothes, and The Princess and the Pea to bring joy to the little matchgirl. The child haunts the background of each story though she never speaks, only occasionally making small noises. As time wears on, Shuteye becomes more and more dishevelled, losing the brilliant showmanship that he has at the start of the first story – he is after all, just another homeless man attempting to bring light to the little girl’s life. The tale ends as one would expect The Little Matchgirl to end, the small girl curling up to sleep while all around her people are ‘not getting involved’.
Rice’s staging and choreography is impressive, bringing a lightness to a frankly difficult subject matter. However, this lightness does not in anyway diminish the strength in the story being told. The songs are simple, but hard-hitting – ‘Imagine you’re tiny, with all this unfurled’ describes both Thumbelina with the world at her feet and the matchgirl with her world torn apart. It is hard not to admire the way that this play so beautifully and heart-breaking demonstrates the struggles and torment that young children across the world, even in our own country, are experiencing in this age of discord.
On Theatr Clwyd’s Anthony Hopkins stage The Little Matchgirl offered an unexpected intimacy. It is hard to imagine this being successfully recreated on a larger platform. The production was, in part, so effective because of the audience’s huddled proximity to the action onstage.
The Little Matchgirl is a heart-wrenching and timely look at the lives of children in need across the world. The use of the set to switch between Shuteye’s world and the real world amplifies the stories and sets them apart from the other goings-on onstage. What’s more, the use of puppetry throughout the play is excellently done and adds to the surrealistic nature of the whole performance. Edmundson in particular gives the matchgirl puppet life; and the other actors too interact with the doll so realistically it was almost as if she were a real child, which only made it that much harder to watch her suffering. The child’s silence speaks to the lack of voice given to those children in need across the world and at home who have no one to help them.
You can read an interview with star of The Little Match Stick Girl, Katy Owen, here.