'We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep' Act IV, Scene I, The Tempest
It’s not your classic Christmas play with drag-queens and rosy endings, but Emma Rice still manages to achieve the festive spirit in her direction of The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales at the Bristol Old Vic. Each fairy-tale is told through the magical storyteller we meet on a cold December night. At times it is cringey, but that is to be expected of a pantomime. On the whole the play boasts silly, energetic fun amidst the deeper theme of homelessness at Christmas.
As the company fills the theatre, a trio of musicians wrapped up in coats greet the audience and warm the stage with smooth bluesy busking. Having the band on stage is a nice touch; it creates an intimacy between character and audience, and sets the tone of the play. The opening is chaotic but this provides an energy which is sustained throughout the play right until the very end. The matchgirl, worked by puppeteer Edie Edmundson, is introduced. Her talent is evident in that all attention is on the doll instead of her. Each story begins with the light from one of her matches, and a fantasy world is created in front of her, beginning with ‘Thumbelina’. Personally, I found this goes on too long and lacks spirit, perpetuated by the rhyming dialogue which ends up being slightly grating.
The second act definitely has better pace and is much more entertaining, due to the lively, wacky characters complete with comical political references for the adults. (It is strange to finally be able to understand what all the grown-ups were laughing at!). ‘I’ll be the twit of Twitter... actually I think we all already know who that is’ particularly elicited a lot of laughs.
These jokes come from Niall Ashdown, the narrator who tells the stories both to us and the Little Matchgirl. He also takes a lead role in ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. Out of all the fairytales, this one stands out, topped with a spectacular reveal (for those who aren’t familiar with the story I won’t spoil it, for those who are... I’ll leave you guessing). His unabashed confidence really engages the audience, especially in periodically breaking the fourth wall to acknowledge clichés as he performs them. The reply ‘Eughh!’ from a brave girl in the audience to his open question ‘How about we have a story about love?’ was ad-libbed perfectly in his response – ‘Well it’s not about you is it?’ – classic panto style.
The brash comedy is starkly juxtaposed in-between the fairy tales with the unfolding reality of the match girl’s grim situation. Ever present but never noticed, she watches the stories unfold from side of stage, until the narrator reaches the last three matches. Here the play turns darker. Her story is told, ending in the doll left lying motionless on stage, now an empty shell. At the end of curtain calls, Ashdown steps forward to acknowledge the serious meaning behind the play, and the collection buckets line the way outside for St Mungo’s – a homeless charity offering shelter over winter. Though not the most festive ending, it was heart-warming to see so many people donating as we left. The Christmas spirit was extended beyond the stage, and credit to the theatre company for using the opportunity to raise money for such a relevant cause.
Ella Faye Howcroft