Arthur Pita’s The Little Match Girl is a seasonal staple at the Lilian Baylis, where it’s been shown five out of the last six Decembers. The 2014 production transforms Hans Christian Andersen’s dark tale about an impoverished match seller into a quirky Christmas spectacular, complete with a romp on the moon. Pita often works with ballet dancers – his latest creation, The Mother, stars the Royal Ballet’s Natalia Osipova – but the performers here take more of a thespian tack, singing and wittering in high-pitched Italian. Think comic opera meets dance theatre, with choreography so animated there’s no translation needed.
Like most holiday fables, a robust social commentary underpins the levity – in this case, a take on greed and poverty. Our title character, Fiammetta (Corey Annand), is a poor orphan stuck selling matches on Christmas Eve. Business is bad, scoundrels abound, and Fiammetta ends up losing her shoes and freezing to death in the snow. Walking his signature tightrope of magical and twisted, Pita counters this peril by sending our heroine on a cosmic adventure in the afterlife. It’s a dreamy twist that skirts the right side of sappy – picture-perfect Christmas messaging.
Pita’s relocation of the story to Italy opens the door for farce in the commedia dell’arte tradition, including a few numbers in drag. Playing a rotating cast of antagonists – elbows-out merchants, cold-hearted bourgeoisie – Stefanos Dimoulas, Ashley Morgan-Davies and Hanna Nussbaumer spin a wheel of exaggerated emotions: glee, irritation, gluttony, spite. They leave their biggest mark as the hilariously horrible Donnarumma family, who gorge on treats while Fiammetta begs for scraps. There’s no time for their comeuppance in this hour-long show, but the performers each get a redemptive turn as an honourable character, including Dimoulas as Fiammetta’s sequin-spangled grandmother.
Annand’s choreography is the most lyrical, a gentle flow of extensions and attitude turns that she greets with careful turnout. It’s bouncier fare for the ensemble, tasked with high-kicking panto routines. We have a fifth performer in the form of instrumentalist Phil King, who creates a striking live soundtrack out of strings, flutes, wind chimes, vocals and more. (The compositions come from Frank Moon, a frequent collaborator of Pita’s.) When Fiammetta tries to one-up the Donnarummas, it’s rattling drums for the chase and a wrenching violin for her penance. Later, when she’s drifting into unconsciousness, King launches into a heartrending ballad, with Dimoulas harmonising on stage.
The finale is a ball: Fiammetta flies to the moon, where Davies swaps his bad-guy hat for an astronaut helmet, joining her in a springy, long-lined prance among the craters. A squealing theremin ushers in a rocket, and just like that it’s blast-off. The scene is charmingly lo-fi and makes no apologies for its oddball course. After all, what’s Christmas without some imagination?