THE LITTLE MATCHGIRL AND OTHER HAPPIER TALES at Bristol Old Vic

This year’s festive show at the BOV mixes colourful knockabout with a distinctly darker tint to produce a challenging, but entirely satisfying, seasonal family offering. It also perhaps reveals the true meaning of Christmas.

Director Emma Rice, the outgoing artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe has co-adapted the piece with writer Joel Harwood and it arrives in Bristol in a fresh production following appearance in the Globe last winter. What she has produced borrows from a vaudevillian tradition mixed with a heavy dose of pure pantomime combining many inventive touches along the way as it tells four classic Hans Christian Andersen tales.

The Little Matchgirl is the puppet protagonist, expertly manoeuvred with great sensitivity throughout by Edie Edmundson.  Whenever she strikes a match a new tale is introduced, usually with great gusto by Niall Ashdown as the master of ceremonies Ole Shuteye.  Although he seems more interested in the steak and kidney pudding congealing in his dressing room, he is the artful go-between for the audience and the mute puppet.  He also has a nice line in asides, dealing superbly with a heckle from a five year old causing her to burst into laughter rather than tears.

Thumbelina is presented and we enter a world not quite as cutesy and full of warmth as the one we expected. Children’s stories involving morality tales don’t always come saccharine-coated and this one is right up there with the sort of Grimm’s tale nastiness associated with the worst of the pantomime villains.  Poor Thumbelina is abused by a brutal Mr Mole played by Guy Hughes featuring distinctly unfestive violence which often appears in the show and links the two worlds of fantasy and stark reality.

The Emperor’s New Clothes follows a more rumbustious comic storytelling and builds up the tension nicely when egos and modesty are burst at the denouement.  The Princess and the Pea features a neatly linked tableau of homeless people with discarded mattresses later being used to pile up on the testing bed.  Again here, all is not as it seems, and love and an easy happy ending is elusive.

There are interactive moments throughout often delivered by Ole Shuteye with topical references that move back and forth across the fourth wall.

The show does not seek to preach and there is enough laugh out loud silliness, but these moments aren’t allowed to brighten up the misery too much.  The Little Matchgirl’s own tragic story is dramatically shown in counterpoint with a happy modern family singing Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody around the dinner table.

The rhyming couplet script conveys an adroit narrative and the set made up of an Edwardian theatre backdrop with a scaffolding clad gantry on the other illustrates the dual stories of hope and loss.

This is wonderful show, well performed and with polished musical accompaniment.  It delivers classic morality stories with a modern tinge, reminding us along the way that child poverty and exploitation have always existed and need to be eradicated. Especially at Christmas time.     ★★★★☆     Bryan Mason     7th December 2017

Photograph by Steve Tanner