The Little Match Girl at the Wardrobe Theatre

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I must admit to being both extremely excited and a little worried at the thought of seeing The Little Match Girl on stage.  It is a beautifully written but extremely sad tale, provoking tears almost every time I revisit it.

Should I prepare my seven-year old daughter before the performance?  Yes.  So, in the morning, we watched a 1937 Rhapsody cartoon of the tale, a short film of it and we listened to a Kylie Minogue reading, recorded for Jo Whiley some years back (I remember hearing that version on Radio 1, whilst driving my car through Birmingham.  I had to stop at the roadside because I could no longer see clearly. Blubber!).  Then, on the train, on the way into Bristol, we read Hans Christian Andersen’s original words.    She asked questions but took it all in her stride. Kids do, don’t they?

We trek up from Temple Meads to The White Bear in St Michael’s Hill.  This is home to The Wardrobe Theatre, nestled upstairs with its tiny but ample stage and rows of chairs and benches, a bar at the back.  The cast from Dot and Ethel come and find us in the Box Office (bar), and lead us upstairs, chatting excitedly, welcoming us.

Up in the theatre, we are each given a long black and white tube, which will become the Wind.  I look around.  This is a school day so everyone, apart from my home educated girl and, of course, the parents, is under 4.  I then realise that sadness won’t feature heavily in this production.  In fact there is a lightness and colour to it that is only slightly CBeebies, mainly there is a sense of joy and, yes, Christmas.

The Wind, or interpretations of it, features for the first ten minutes or so.  “When is The Little Match Girl starting?” she asks.  “It has,” I whisper back, from our cushion seats at the very front of the auditorium.   Then the pieces of wind-worried newspaper almost miraculously become a tiny figure, a puppet of our eponymous heroine.  “Gasp!”  And look here’s Granny with her tea and The Little Match Girl and bubbles and balloons and bubbles …

Dot and Ethel Stage Designer, Harriet de Winton, and Director, Heidi Vaughn, aim to bring imagination and freshness to their productions. And this they most definitely achieve through The Little Match Girl.  There is simple but effective use of lights, sparklers, an OHP, a tea cup, boxes, bubbles, bubbles …

This is a story about adventure.  And women adventurers – hurrah!!

But what is really special about The Little Match Girl is the interaction between the actors and the children.  One of them asked my daughter the name of her bear when we arrived and made sure that her special pal was part of the audience, giving him a tube, asking if he enjoyed the show at the end, making sure he had a sticker.  Attention to detail, which made her feel special.  A few of the little ones were throwing stuff on stage, touching props, investigating – and the cast simply made that part of their show.

After the show, some of the children got up on stage and played with the props, talking to the actors, interpreting it all in their own way.  My Girl was enthralled by the newspaper puppet, eager to investigate the matches, to give Haribo the Bear a sip of Granny’s tea.  She stayed on the Wardrobe’s stage for a good 20 minutes, encouraged by the cast to really feel a part of the performance.

Did I need to tell her the story before we left?   Well, yes and no.  This is a completely different interpretation of Andersen’s fairy story.  If you know the original it will give you another, more grown-up slant on the whole experience – you will understand the reworking, for sure. It got us thinking about reinvention and the myriad ways to translate words into actions.  But for those who don’t know it, the sweetness, the vibrancy and the adventure of Dot and Ethel’s production will sweep you away, regardless.

The Little Match Girl shows at The Wardrobe Theatre until Sunday 22nd December

Check out Dot and Ethel’s blogspot

– Review by Becky Condron

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