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