Watching last night’s performance of The Little Matchgirl (And Other Happier Tales), I felt renewed disappointment at Emma Rice’s curtailed artistic directorship of Shakespeare's Globe. Because the production, her first in the candle-lit playhouse, is an out-and-out triumph. Endlessly inventive, gloriously silly, poignant, topical, edifying. The whole shebang.
Co-adapted with award-winning writer Joel Horwood (who also wrote the script), the show combines four of Hans Christian Andersen’s tales, using The Little Matchgirl as its framework. Each match she lights conjures a new story from raconteur extraordinaire Ole Shuteye and his troupe of hapless performers.
In a production this fine, it’s hard to know who to praise first, but I’ll start with Rice, whose meticulous ingenuity is in full flow here. From the smallest moments of creativity (the tiny puppet playing Thumbelina battles winds provided by a huffing, puffing Shuteye), to big, brazen visual gags, like the endless supply of mattresses flung onstage in The Princess and the Pea, every scene is jam-packed with delights. Even moments other directors might speed through, soar under Rice’s touch. A vizier checks out the Emperor’s new clothes offstage, and the remaining characters’ awkward waiting somehow results in a salsa to "The Girl from Ipanema". Just when you think you can’t grin any wider, there are the truly surreal touches – like toads that don’t hop but moonwalk. Complete with Michael Jackson crotch-grabs. Obviously.
Of course, Rice is working with some stonking raw material in Horwood’s rhyming script. Witty, infinitely original, and with clever contemporary touches that avoid down-with-the-kids desperation, it had me waiting with baited breath for the end of each couplet.
The cast of seven is also universally superb, not just morphing into the show’s many characters with ease, but finding just the right vocal tick or physical trait to bring them joyously to life. And while each member is as skilful as the next, the firm crowd favourites were Paul Hunter, whose asides as Shuteye brought the house down, and Bettrys Jones and Jack Shalloo as Geordie tricksters masquerading as German fashion designers. Vogueing in their prison overalls (all the rage in Shoreditch, darling) they soon have the style-conscious Emperor showering them with their design essentials: silk, nylon, gin, tonic, gold… dolphin saliva.
Stephen Warbeck’s excellent score, by turns jaunty and haunting, is realised with some of the best singing I’ve heard in children’s theatre; Kyle Lima and Jack Shalloo’s perfect harmonies almost deserve a show of their own. Vicki Mortimer’s costumes, meanwhile, are inspired.
It’s not all fun and games, though. The Little Matchgirl is a devastating tale in its own right but Rice’s production is shot through with misery that is all too close to home. Both Thumbelina and the Little Matchgirl are refugees of war, struggling to find security: "It’s lonely out here facing only closed doors / Rejected, unwanted. Such baffling laws." Shuteye is eventually revealed as a homeless man shivering in snowy London. It’s a crushing but timely reminder to think of others less fortunate this Christmas.
As I left the theatre, just about holding back the tears, I mused that a director who can move you from belly laughs to tissue-grabbing in the space of a scene is a very special director indeed. Catch Rice at the Globe while you still can.
The Little Matchgirl (And Other Happier Tales) runs at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre until 22 January.
Running time is approximately 1 hour 35 minutes without an interval