Patrick Centre, Hippodrome Theatre, Birmingham, UK; November 27, 2014

David Mead

Corey Annand as The Little Match Girl. Photo © Phil Conrad

Corey Annand as The Little Match Girl.
Photo © Phil Conrad

What an absolute joy of a piece Arthur Pita’s enchanting and brilliantly inventive telling of Hans Christian Andersen’s sad and heartrending tale of “The Little Match Girl” turns out to be. It may have been put together with families and youngsters in mind, but this is truly a work that has plenty for everyone. In fact, so enthralled was the Birmingham audience by the unfolding story that barely anyone stirred until they burst into a well-deserved ovation at the end.

A reimagining it might be, but all the essentials are there. Pita relocates the story to Santo Stefano sul Tuscio, an imaginary Italian city, on a freezing cold and icy Christmas Eve. The fresh-faced and fleetingly light on her feet Corey Annand (who trained at Birmingham’s Elmhurst School for Dance) was perfect as the terribly vulnerable The Little Match Girl struggling desperately to sell her matches so she can afford some food and shelter.

Like many of Andersen’s stories, “The Little Match Girl” has its dark side and moments of cruelty that Pita doesn’t shy away from. Although briefly befriended by a lamplighter (Karl Fagerlund Brekke), and with who the Match Girl gets to dance a duet that makes some creative use of his pole, everyone else seems against her. It is impossible not to feel for her as she is left tied to a lamppost by a heartless family; bullied by a young match boy (Valentina Golfieri) who takes her shoes and matches; and especially as she sat next to her grandmother’s grave in the cemetery. Even the ordinary townsfolk seem against her as knocks on doors are met with lights being turned off.

The Little Match Girl meets the Donnarumma family. Photo © Phil Conrad

The Little Match Girl meets the Donnarumma family.
Photo © Phil Conrad

The grotesque, somewhat pantomimic Donnarumma family really are a nasty, stuck up piece of work, especially their spoiled brat of a daughter, Angelica (Golfieri again). The parents (Angelo Smimmo and Brekke) are the sort of people who would cross the road rather than pass by someone seeking help. Although they start off looking quite humorous, their passive standoffishness and blindness to the Match Girl’s state eventually turns a rather uglier shade.

Having died in front of her grandmother’s grave, the Match Girl’s grandmother emerges and takes her – not to heaven – but to the moon. Here, Pita has great fun with an Apollo mission-style lunar module and a radio-controlled lunar buggy. The smiles of the audience only increase with a neat duet for astronaut and heroine.

While “Little Match Girl” is not exactly a happy story, Pita manages to find more than a few touches of humour, both in the telling of the story, and in his characters. Best of all is a moment on the moon as the astronaut comes to leave, only to discover that the lunar module won’t start. It’s amazing what a match can do!

The ending, with the Match Girl lighting the stars night sky is beautifully poignant.

The 65-minute piece was beautifully danced by the multi-talented cast of four, all of whom except Annand took on multiple characters. The dancing is simple yet elegant, and never detracts from the story, which is just as it should be. What little dialogue there is, and the song lyrics, are in Italian, but don’t worry about needing to understand them. The stresses and tones in the words say it all.

The Little Match Girl. Photo © Phil Conrad

The Little Match Girl.
Photo © Phil Conrad

Lighting up the night sky Photo © Phil Conrad

Lighting up the night sky
Photo © Phil Conrad

Cornish composer Frank Moon (who also trained in the city at the Conservatoire) provides some evocative music, much of which he played live. Yann Seabra’s set, especially the small town, is an absolute delight, while his costumes accentuate all that is good and bad about each character, and our feelings towards them. The Little Match Girl.

Inspiring, utterly delightful and a gorgeous Christmas show. Do go.

Arthur Pita’s “The Little Match Girl” is at the Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells, London from December 13-January 4.