|Photo: Steve Tanner|
The annual Bristol Old Vic Christmas show is a date to be circled on the calendar in red, splattered with glitter and looked forward to for weeks. Bristol Old Vic knows how to do Christmas shows well. But they've taken a big risk with the 2017 production, directed by the exciting Emma Rice: The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales.
Those familiar with Hans Christian Anderson's The Little Matchgirl will know it is one of - if not the most - tear-jerking of fairytales. Which of course prompts the And Other Happier Tales element of the sub-title. Those other tales being Thumbelina, The Emperor's New Clothes and The Princess and the Pea. Although I'm not sure 'happier' is the word I'd apply to these, especially Thumbelina, despite a truly magnificent performance from the mighty Katy Owen.
Big issues are at play on the Bristol Old Vic stage this Christmas, and themes ranging from domestic abuse, forced marriage and emotional abuse sit alongside the equally cheery ones of extreme poverty, homelessness and soldiers scarred by warfare. Of course, it's right to acknowledge that for many people Christmas is not a happy and sparkly time, and that plenty of people don't even have a roof to spend Christmas under never mind a family to spend the time with. But is it appropriate to tackle these important issues in what is billed as a Christmas show for the family (the publicity recommends it is for ages eight and above, although Bristol Old Vic has a separate Christmas show for much younger children)?
It felt a little jarring to set the homeless and destitute Little Matchgirl off against singing and dancing beetles; to see Thumbelina trafficked by Mrs Fieldmouse into a life of slavery and domestic abuse and set this alongside the all-singing storytelling troupe The Shuteyes... and so on. It felt rather like two different productions going on alongside one another but that they didn't quite gel. Separately, they would have doubtless been two excellent shows.
The real highlight was The Emperor's New Clothes, where Niall Ashdown triumphed as the preposterous and bumptious Emperor, and the big reveal at the end was well worth the wait. Just magnificent.
Director Emma Rice defends the decision to put on a less jolly Christmas show by saying it offers us a window into other people's lives: "We want to think of others at Christmas, we want to share stories and take time to imagine the lives of others and maybe even consider what we can or might do to help." While I certainly don't disagree, I still wonder if a Christmas family show is the right place to do so.
Regardless, The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales is, as you would expect from Bristol Old Vic and Emma Rice, an accomplished, satisfying and largely tight production. It is inventive, imaginative and, at times, laugh out loud funny. But given it's very closing scene, I wonder if it will leave audiences with the warm and fuzzy festive feeling they had hoped for...
The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales is performed at Bristol Old Vic until January 14. Click here for more information and to book tickets.