Laura Freeman

Chilling: Arthur Pita’s The Little Match Girl at Sadler’s Wells reviewed

Plus: wit, verve and spectacle in Matthew Bourne's The Red Shoes

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Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes

Sadler’s Wells Theatre, until 19 January, then touring until 6 June

The Little Match Girl – Arthur Pita

Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells

Did your feet twitch? That’s the test of The Red Shoes. Did your toes point? Your ankles flex? Your arches ache to dance all night? I defy you to watch Powell and Pressburger’s film of The Red Shoes (1948), inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen story, and not feel the sinister magic right down to your last metatarsal.

First staged in 2016, Matthew Bourne’s riff on The Red Shoes is a show about show business. In spirit it is closer to Singin’ in the Rain than the weird Technicolor glamour of Powell and Pressburger. This is a fairy tale about stage flats and spotlights, cigarettes and fur coats, about ballet masters, wardrobe mistresses, sheet music, leotards, bouquets and the barre. Ashley Shaw dances Victoria Page, styled very much after Moira Shearer with red waves to match her slippers. She dances the early scenes beautifully. Her poise, brightness and new-girlishness are just right. She is less convincing as the dancer willing to die for her art. Shaw is pleasing, but not prima.

Adam Cooper, who created the part of the Swan/Stranger in Bourne’s Swan Lake, is stalking and saturnine as the Diaghilev-like impresario Boris Lermontov, while Dominic North is regrettably spoddy as the struggling composer Julian Craster. When Craster waves his baton, it is less Sir Simon Rattle, more Harry Potter. Bourne’s choreography is always inventive, if not always comfortable. At times, Shaw and North’s pas de deux looks like couple’s yoga.

But you’re there for the spectacle: the proscenium arch, the red velvet curtains, the revolving set that reels you from backstage to front of house, rehearsal room to wings. The show opens with a parody ballet of the plodding old guard: mothballed melodrama, Winterhalter frocks, sighs you can hear from the gods. Bourne delights in skits: a tulle reprise of La Sylphide; a tease on the Ballet Russes’s Le Train Bleu (sets by Picasso, costumes by Chanel), all muscular youth in bathing onesies; a cringing take on an East End variety show with pinstriped ventriloquist, vaudeville Egyptians and sequinned lovelies. All danced with enormous wit and verve. Bravo the conductor who took his bow in red patent loafers.

There’s more Andersen in a revival of Arthur Pita’s The Little Match Girl, first performed in 2013. This show should come with a warning: not The Nutcracker. No Kingdom of Sweets, no dancing snowflakes, no mice in tights. If there is a sugarplum, its flesh is ash. Corey Annand is Fiammetta Russo, a tiny tatterdemalion selling matches for a shilling on the streets of the fictional Santo Stefano sul Tuscio. Her face is moon white, her eyes like coals. She dances a spindle-shank solo, tapers in hand. Light comes from gas lamps, struck matches, shadow theatres, stars in a freezing sky.

The little match girl is hounded off her patch by the bullying match boys Franco (Karl Fagerlund Brekke) and Carletto (Hanna Nussbaumer) who wear their matches like Scissorhands claws. There is real fear here: Dickens at his darkest with the menace of Ferrante. Three grotesque bourgeois in top hats and fluoro bloomers taunt the little match girl with piles of presents, pheasants, panettone and a conger eel worn as a muffler. Nussbaumer plays the daughter as a gleeful grotesque: Violet Elizabeth Bott crossed with a jack-o’-lantern. To a child raised on Frozen (Andersen again), this parable about poverty, darkness and want comes as a brilliant nightmare.

Three little match girls sat in the front row. I wondered how they were getting on. The callous Christmas carol certainly gave me a nervy night’s sleep. Put Pita in your diary for next December. I left with a tear in my eye and a chill down my spine.