Theatre Review: The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales @ Bristol Old Vic
by Polly Hember

Emma Rice and Joel Horwood’s beautiful reimagining of four well-known Hans Christian Andersen tales is as challenging as it is enchanting. With equal measures of magical whimsy, as Thumbelina is carried across oceans by a butterfly, there is a provocative and shocking sorrow that seeps through the production as our little Matchgirl lies down, frozen and alone at the dénouement.  


A Bristol Old Vic co-production with Shakespeare’s Globe, this is a phenomenal piece of theatre. It is original, raw and anarchic. It is a tale about storytelling, cleverly using folkloric tales to comfort and entertain both the characters in the play and the entranced audience. Our narrator tells the Matchgirl, “I’m not telling your story”. However, the Matchgirl’s sad story is shown through deft puppetry, brilliant live music, fantastic characters, costumes and a magical set – conveying how crucial it is to tell even the sad stories, to hear the marginalised voices and not just the Happier Tales this Christmas.

Adapted from Anderson’s original tale, we join a homeless girl on the street selling matches. Freezing, she lights a match to keep her warm. The brilliant vaudeville entertainer Ole Shuteye (Niall Ashdown) appears out of the darkness, brilliant and bright as a burning flame with a troop of circus performers in clowning costumes in tow. The witty and wry Ole is a fantastic narrator, acting like an emcee-genie-in-a-bottle who tells a tale for every match the little girl strikes.

A wild and wonderful collection of Anderson tales; Thumbelina’s tale dominates the first act. Set in the Blitz, surrounded by falling bombs, there is a thematic yearning for a safe place to call home, and also a quest for an adventure. A fantastic Katy Owen acts as the little Thumbelina’s puppeteer in a tale with multiple scales; tiny frog puppets, huge toad costumes, a villainous mole and a heroic soldier-swallow. Owen is brave, fierce and feisty as Thumbelina. 

Her tale engages with very dark themes; bulbous frogs and malevolent moles both desire to cage, keep and marry Thumbelina who feels stifled and small, unable to break free until a swallow bursts through the roof, they fall in love and he emotionally tells her that home is wherever you find people who will listen to your story. This emotively discusses forced marriage, domestic abuse and homelessness in a nuanced and innovative manner.

The second act delves into The Emperor’s New Clothes and Princess and the Pea. The Emperor’s New Clothes was light-hearted and hilarious, with Ashdown stepping into the role of Emperor with a metatheatrical and sarcastic glee. Princess and the Pea saw the incredible Kezrena James as a beautiful princess in pain, and Guy Hughes as a dopey Prince who decides to test his love, which backfires as the Princess leaves after he inflicts this painful test on her. Again, these tales bravely engage with deep and dark issues, the ensemble sing “if you cause it yourself, can you still call it pain?”.

The talented cast switch between stories, characters and roles in this blurry, anarchic and hugely successful production. Brilliant performances by the energetic ensemble are backed by a folky musical backdrop, fuelling the storytelling on stage. Three talented musicians (Alex Heane, Dave Johnzy and Jon Gingell) are dressed as bruised, busking vagrants who play to the audience as they sit down, providing an original and nuanced score by composer Stephen Warbeck – harking back to Andersen’s oral and folkloric traditions.


The costumes are phenomenal; the colourful, ludic clown suits, thick tights and corsets that Ole Shuteye’s band are all slightly worn-out and faded, contributing to the tarnished mysticism of the tale, bursting with vaudeville and fire. Horwood’s script, written all in rhyme, manages to convey intense emotion as well as side-splitting laughter.

The constant presence of the little matchgirl is crucially important and again, hugely effective. The little girl is a puppet, skilfully directed by puppeteer Edie Edmundson. Both are silent, and watch the events unfurl with the delight of a child being read a fairy tale, just before bed. However, her presence throughout the stories painfully tragic, as well. The deft use of puppetry is hugely clever and interesting. Writer and co-adapter Horwood explains: ‘Puppets are little thought-experiments, they demand the use of our empathy in order to function, so perhaps using a puppet to represent the Little Matchgirl is the most apt, political and ethical means of representing child poverty. From this starting point, we could fill our world with joyful puppets and playful storytelling.’

Thanks to brilliant puppet design and Edmunson’s handling of the role, we feel empathy in abundance. Pangs of sorrow as the Matchgirl pleads Ole Stuteye for one more story to be told, the collective anger we feel as a careless, middle-class couple walk by without a glance, the numb grief we feel as the Matchgirl lies down, cold and alone, in the play’s final moments, are key to this sad and hugely significant tale.

Creative, stylistic and innovative, this play engages with storytelling in a meaningful and magical manner. Mixing escapism and politics in an explosive, inventive and discordant clamour of brilliant costumes, fantastic rhymes and puppetry, this is an important, progressive play that everyone should see this Christmastime.

Creative, stylistic and innovative, this play engages with storytelling in a meaningful and magical manner.

It is as bright and immediate as a struck match, the production as fierce as an open flame, and the embers continue to burn somewhere deep inside you, long after you leave the theatre.


The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales is running at the Bristol Old VIc until 4/1/18. Book tickets here


Check out our gallery for more glimpses of the hilarious and heartbreaking production. 


All photographs by Steve Tanner. 

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