“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.
“The cast were superb, with the quality of sound leaving a lasting impression after the show was through”
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, is a musical mouthful to explain to your friends, but it delivers the plot of this 2005 Broadway musical succinctly and accurately. The story follows the fortunes of six students in their local final of the all-American tradition of the Spelling Bee, each with a good shot at winning and with their own story to tell of how they got there.
What sets this musical apart is its use of audience participation, inviting four audience members up onto stage in Act One to also take part as finalists. Watching each audience member attempt to spell with varying levels of willingness and success was very entertaining, and the novelty and improvised nature in the early rounds stove off any doldrum due to the repetitive nature of the Spelling Bee, keeping it entertaining for longer than would have been possible without it.
The songs giving insight to each character’s life, rather than necessarily moving the plot along, become more tiresome in the second half when the contest becomes a simple whittling down to find the winner. I found the building blocks of the show including plot, music and lyrics to be unimaginative, and was surprised to learn that the original Broadway production earnt a Tony award for Best Book of a Musical. However, the piece was produced and performed with such enjoyment that I couldn’t help but enjoy it myself.
The cast were superb, with the quality of sound leaving a lasting impression after the show was through. Elizabeth Chadwick as the Bee’s facilitator, Rona Lisa Peretti, has a stunningly crystal clear voice, and masterfully guides the action with it. The actors portrayals are also acutely funny, with Michael Watson-Gray as Douglas Panch, the slightly unstable school Vice Principal using each of the required spelling words in wickedly funny sentences. TJ Lloyd as William Barfee and Jeannie May as Marcy Park also had great humour in students who were confidently unphased by the event others were so eager about.
Set design by Victoria Francis is impressive, turning the small studio space of the Drayton Arms Theatre into a miniature school gym with letters littered across the stage, stickered on the floor walls and chairs of the gym. Similarly the choreography by Adam Haigh did well to liven up the action within such tight constraints.
With the components given, this show could have been a drag. But with such joy, care and attention applied by all involved, it instead brightened up my evening.