You wouldn’t think there was much cheer to be found in the story of The Little Match Girl, wherein a poverty-stricken child is ignored and refused help, and dies in the winter street from hypothermia. The message in Hans Christian Andersen’s sad tale, with its stark juxtaposition of poverty and privilege, feels especially pointed in a year when we’ve witnessed hundreds of thousands of men, women and children left with nothing struggling across Europe’s borders.
Yet Arthur Pita’s quirky dance-theatre take on this well-known fable, revived at Sadler’s Wells this year, manages to tease out moments of affecting joy. The setting becomes the imaginary snow-dusted Italian town of Santo Stefano sul Tuscio – the cast speaking and singing in Italian – which opens up associations of opera buffa and commedia dell’arte. Yann Seabra’s simple staging and modest props allow for charming invention. And Pita’s loopy coda, which sees Fiammetta the Match Girl taken on a trip to the moon by the spirit of her grandmother, where they entertain a gobsmacked American astronaut named Hank, sends the whole thing spinning off into giggle-inducing silliness (and unexpected topicality, as press night coincided with Tim Peake reaching the International Space Station).
Pita’s choreography is clear, expressive and beautifully detailed and his four-strong cast rise admirably to its challenges. There’s broad pantomimic expansiveness, finespun tenderness and folk dance traces, complemented by Frank Moon’s beguiling live accompaniment on, among other instruments, oud, violin and piccolo (plus theremin for the outer space interlude).
Between them, Karl Fagerlund Brekke, Angelo Smimmo and Valentina Golfieri portray ten characters, including the heartless, gourmandising Donnarumma family, kitted out in their Dickensian finery, thuggish rival match sellers, who brandish their wares in Freddie Krueger-like fans, and a friendly lamp man. They also provide some impressive semi-operatic singing, particularly Smimmo as the grandmother Nonna Luna. Meanwhile Corey Claire Annand flits among them as Fiammetta, wide-eyed with wonder at simple pleasures and baffled by the casual cruelties meted out to her. Her dancing is delightfully poised between child-like glee and balletic control. It all makes for a captivating hour that will surely bring a tear to your eye.