Is it panto season? One might think so during moments of The Little Matchgirl (And Other Happier Tales), currently visiting the Playhouse. In this portmanteau production we get three bite-size stories by Hans Christian Anderson bookended by the titular vendor, represented here in puppetry.
Although The Little Matchgirl is hardly known for its cheery tone, the three other stories presented here – The Princess and the Pea, The Emperor’s New Clothes and Thumbelina – are rather more traditional fare, featuring winning blends of puppetry, song and dance.
They are portrayed by an all-singing all-dancing vaudeville troupe the little matchgirl stumbles upon, who also appear down on their luck.
But there’s fun to be had while the matches burn, with rhyming couplets and plenty of roughand tumble with the audience, who are drawn into the stories.
There’s also a hilarious deployment of a nude suit, one of several highlights in the performance of Niall Ashdown as the troupe’s leader, assuming several roles in the mini stories that can be remarkably relevant and surprisingly sinister.
But then things abruptly change. No more the magical urban fairytale, the show becomes something very different with grim resonances from Europe’s recent troubled past and has some unsettling things to say about how we treat people in life and death.
The Little Matchgirl sets up the audience perfectly before pulling the rug out from under their feet. It’s a wonderful theatrical sleight-of-hand that both subverts and enriches what has gone before.