THE BLEAK AND THE BOUNCY…RICE COOKS UP A CHRISTMAS PUD
Emma Rice’s warm, candelit take on Hans Christian Andersen, inventive and full-hearted as ever, raises a certain anxiety: I would love a lot of children to see it, but in the tiny Wanamaker it is hard to keep prices down. Still, up in the gallery you can look down through the chandeliers for twenty quid, and given the soaring cost of noisy pop-culture pantos perhaps some parents will bit the bullet, and decide on a more wistful taste of Christmas theatre.
The complete title is “THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL AND OTHER HAPPIER TALES” and with Joel Horwood, Rice has conflated three other tales with the central sadness of the child beggar who lights matches to warm herself and sees visions of Christmas comfort through the flame before dying on the icy pavement. The puppet child (beautifully expressive, with her handler Edie Edmundson) finds that lighting a match brings a Victorian vaudeville host – Olé Shuteye – with a troop of clumsily winsome acrobats and random props to enact the tales. Narration is in rhyming couples, sung or spoken, some of which are rather brilliant: when the crooked tailors, hipster-fashionista-prison-chic posers, demand wealth fro, the Emperor to make his non-existent clothes, they carol:
“Crush your crown jewels into fibre
And bring us a bottle of dolphin saliva”.
And yes, the Emperor is nude . Ish. Shuteye careers through the pit in a full flesh-coloured , rather loose onesie with cheerful stuffed fruit-and-two-veg with ‘real cashmere’ pubes dangling at the crotch. A bawdy touch wholly suitable to a Jacobean theatre…
The tale of Thumbelina – bombed out of a war zone, wandering the world alone and being rejected when she tries to join the insect city, is visually problematic at first, owing to her puppet’s diminutive size, but the Toad who captures her as a bride for his son is magnificently oversized and drew some adult gasps from the front row; and in The Princess and the Pea the piling of mattresses reaches a good 10ft and Akiya Henry, having flown down dramatically to woo the prince, blows him out furiously for daring to test her. HIs song resolves beautifully with the question “If you cause it yourself can you still call it pain?” All Stephen Warbeck’s music is gorgeous: guitar, mandolin, oud and bass overhead.
But the child is at the heart of it , and when Shuteye refuses to light her final match but snaps nervously “She lived happily ever after”, even the youngest child would know that it couldn’t be so. Too much realism has followed her. At last her immobile puppet is borne off , like a drowned migrant child, in a camouflage-clad soldier’s arms. And Ole himself doffs his vaudeville tails, stands homeless and ragged and is led off by a volunteer to a night shelter. Andersen would approve: his magic always had that sad tinge which children so readily recognize.
box office 0207 401 9919 to 22 Jan