The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales, Bristol Old Vic

THERE’S no hint of pantomime about the Bristol Old Vic offering this Christmas, but it’s a show that will stay in the memory and offer a sharp stab each time you think of the homeless and needy this festive season.

It has been a tumultuous time for Emma Rice, one of the most controversial figures in British theatre in decades. In autumn 2016 she was forced out of her position as artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe after the board made it clear they didn’t like her style.

She had already made a new show, The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales, for the tiny candlelit Sam Wana­maker Studio at the venue. It opened to huge acclaim.

Now it comes to Bristol Old Vic as the 2017/18 Christmas entertainment, enlarged and re-staged to fit England’s oldest theatre in continual use, where it runs until 14th January.

Its roots in Kneehigh are waist-deep, intertwining old stories and new visions, a soundtrack that reflects the action while retaining the freshness of improvisation, and chameleon performers who fold their audiences into the heart of whatever tale the light upon.

The framework is the little Match­girl, freezing cold, starving and shoeless in an unfriendly, snowy world. There is no ignoring her fate.

But her few final hours of warm involvement in the old stories give a glimmer of hope for the watchers.

The company of ten, including Edie Edmundson who makes the puppet Matchgirl as vital as any human child, delights and excites the audience, and if you think this sounds like an adult show, the children in the auditorium were enthralled from beginning to end.

The action is fast and furious, as the stories of Thumbelina, the vain Emperor and the Princess and the Pea are mixed with a swirl of reality and a sprinkle of magic.

Katy Owen, so impressive in Adolphus Tips, returns to the Old Vic stage in a series of roles that are certainly worth the price of the ticket and the journey to the city.

Niall Ashdown’s storyteller introduces The Shuteyes, a tumbling troupe of talent and versatility with Guy Hughes, Kezrena James, Karl Queensborough, Elizabeth Weston and musicians Jon Gingell, Alex Heane and Dave Johnzy. Together they lead the audience through these sad and happy, hilarious and tragic tales.

It’s a stunning show, a tribute to Emma Rice, and a wonderful way to celebrate Christmas in the theatre. And don’t forget the St Mungo charity or the  Big Issue seller on the way out

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Photographs by Guy Tanner