On tour until April 21
The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales
Not too bold a claim, saying that many Knee High productions are pure magic. And not too great a step to their coming up with something based on
fairy stories, especially given their name. Or folk tales if you will, presumably created in the mists of time to try and make some sense of the world around, perhaps as much within as without, and as much back in the 19th century as today.
Families should keep in mind however a version of the old nursery rhyme: when it’s funny, it is hilarious. But when it’s sad, it’s really, really sad. Never mind that somewhat curious title, Mr Andersen was not a great one for coming up with happy endings (I can think of two). Anyway, the first half sets the scene for the tale of the tragic child herself then turns picaresque following the travails of Thumbelina. We then get a game of two halves as it were: The Emperor’s New Clothes and The Princess and the Pea.
The often spooky play is set on an eerily cavernous stage, a vast backcloth to the left, rather than the ubiquitous video screen, perhaps surprisingly being used to depict just a couple of outdoor locations. Even more curiously, the huge scaffolding at the back swings round to reveal a cosy interior for one quite short scene only. It means there’s plenty of room for the action, and all the dancing and singing, the musicians often incorporating the actors, and the music, judicious sound effects. The colourful, otherwordly costumes come into their own, along with lively choreography, in the capricious Emperor’s court: elaborate dress and towering pompadour heads with the tricksters tricked out in sterotypical prison garb onsies, to which their obsessed ruler turns a completely blind eye. In many ways, this was the best adapation, from its stinging satire on consumerism and fashion to well, guess what? Lost for words here when it comes to the Emperor’s wardrobe so let’s just say, he really stands out.
As does Niall Ashdown, both in this role and as Andersen’s storyteller, Ole Shuteye, the narrator; a brilliant stroke. He has the audience in the palm of his hand throughout, amusingly and craftily twisting you around his little finger. As for Katy Owen, impossible to choose between her captivating Thumbelina and the crafty Trickster, where she is matched by Guy Hughes. Both he and Karl Queensborough undergo startling metamorphoses in various roles, particularly as sinister mole and blithe swallow respectively. Again, all the cast are worthy of praise, and mention should also be made of Kezrena James as treacherous Field Mouse and sensible Princess, Elizabeth Westcott (Jackson) as the face of epic Emo sulks and the puppeteer, Edie Edmundson, skilfully manoeuvering the poor little girl with her fleeting joys and inevitable sadness.
But the moral of the story is – we are actually aware of the social implications, refugees et al. Nowadays, you cannot see a man and a small child on a stage without jumping to the obvious conclusion, and people coming to your rescue invariably cannot be trusted; that helping hand could well give you a hefty slap. A powerful message is one thing; the relentless emphasis quite another; in a show presumably aimed as much at children, it could suggest Jesuit leanings.Hence, the Little Matchgirl’s plight is equated with that of the homeless, but she isn’t; a brutal father is the problem. And although Artistic Director Emma Rice talks about the rage against poverty, and she is right, that anger is somewhat overwhelming here with constant allusions to all the woes of the modern world. Indeed, reminders are better by far than no mention at all, but sometimes less is more, and has a greater, longer-lasting effect.
That said, even if this production isn’t quite to everybody’s taste, yet it’s mostly remarkably concocted.