Reviewed – 3rd December 2018
“tells a festive story with a hilarious mix of cheer and cynicism”
It’s New Year’s Eve and Brendan is working late. Dejected and bored, he is in no mood to celebrate but a chance encounter with a girl changes everything. Striking 12 is a warm and funny retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Match Girl. Set in modern New York, this production has updated the classic fairy tale with a sweetness that does not lose the touching sadness of the original story.
Declan Bennett and Bronté Barbé do a good job as the titular characters Brendan and the Match Girl. Barbé plays the vulnerable fairy tale Match Girl as well as the modernised one who sells Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) lamps instead of matches. This may seem like a bizarre way to update the story, but it works well to paint a picture of Brendan as an overworked bah-humbug New Yorker. With exposed brick walls, malleable staging and use of vintage lighting, the Union Theatre is also a wonderful space for a show set in New York. The use of matchboxes as tickets and matches on stage was also a great added touch.
Along with the talented Andrew Linnie on piano, Kate Robson-Stuart and Leon Scott brilliantly switch between acting and playing multiple instruments to infuse the story with perfect comedic timing. There are some fantastic numbers, particularly ‘Matches for Sale’ and its reprise in ‘Say What?’ Put together, the songs tell the story of The Little Match Girl, and then self-consciously play with what a modernised version of the story would look like. In doing so, Oliver Kaderbhai’s careful direction blends the tenderness of the fairy tale with modern wit. The show’s real magic is held in the hands of Danielle Kassaraté whose Narrator is effortlessly charismatic, adding some fantastic moments of empathy and humour.
This is a tight performance that strikes the right tone throughout. Without falling into the trap of irritating unwarranted optimism that so often taints musicals at this time of year, Striking 12 tells a festive story with a hilarious mix of cheer and cynicism. It will end the year with a lovely, simple message: that sharing some sincere festive spirit can make us less sad, and failing that, there’s SAD lamps.
Reviewed by Tatjana Damjanovic
Photography by Tom Grace
Union Theatre until 23rd December
Previously reviewed at this venue:
The Little Match Girl
Reviewed – 8th December 2017
“the score is filled with wit, melody and emotion”
‘The Little Match Girl’, adapted from Hans Christian Anderson’s classic fairy tale is an enchanting musical running at the Tabard Theatre over the festive period. First performed forty years ago at the Orange Tree Theatre (under its original title ‘Scraps’), it was later adapted for television in the eighties featuring Twiggy and Roger Daltrey. That it is being revived now with the composer Keith Strachan directing is quite a coup, and testament to the theatre’s (and producer Simon Reilly’s) ever growing reputation for staging quality productions.
Set in a wintry, Victorian London, the ‘Little Match Girl’ of the title is out on the streets selling matches, and is not allowed home with her father until she has sold them all. It is a beautiful yet achingly sad tale, full of contradictions: the story paints a dismal picture of life for the poor in Victorian London, but it also carries a grim hope. We are plunged into this world as soon as we enter the auditorium. Mike Leopold’s steely set (complete with snow) is enhanced by Tom Huxley’s sound design – alternating between a cutting, cold wind and the hubbub of street markets and carol singers.
The real challenge for the writers is that the original story is a very slim one indeed. So fleshing it out into a full length musical is quite a task. Consequently the interest needs to hinge on the characters and the music. This doesn’t always succeed, but when it does, one is transported – the score is filled with wit, melody and emotion and the ensemble acting and singing filled with gusto that sweeps you along.
Recent graduate Emily Cochrane, in the title role, gives a very watchable and convincing performance. Waif like, quirky and vulnerable there are shades of a young Shirley Henderson about her. It is sometimes not easy to tell, though, whether the action is in her head or actually happening. The lines between her dreams and the reality are often blurred. In fact, overall, the production could have benefitted from a clearer distinction between the surrealism and the naturalism inherent in the narrative.
Likewise there could have been more light and shade in the musical arrangements. Though, saying that, there is a lovely simplicity to the songs which, to be fair, is probably the intention. With Musical Director, Richie Hart, almost single-handedly providing the accompaniment, there is a refreshing absence of trying to be clever. The lyrics, too, tell it like it is. The score notably includes the Ivor Novello Award-winning song ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ which went on to become a Christmas No.1 single for Cliff Richard. The musical highlights though are ‘Richman’s Banquet’ sung by Anthony Williamson with a manic dark humour (with a wonderful twist at the end), and Aimee Barrett (who also choreographs) singing the show-stopping ‘An Ordinary Life’.
As an alternative to the traditional Panto on offer, there is enough magic in this show to put you in the festive mood. The message is indeed worthy – that our imagination can give us comfort, solace and reprieve from so many of life’s hardships – but it’s a message told here in an entertaining and life-affirming way; complete with laughter, and maybe the odd tear too.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Alastair Hilton
The Little Match Girl
is at the Tabard Theatre until 31st December 2017