Arthur Pita has a fine sense of theatre; he’s a showman, developing a distinctive style; creating vibrant fairy tales, dressed up in cartoon-book colours. He could also be a poker player because Pita takes risks but always, it seems, when he knows that the odds will be in his favour. The biggest gamble with his theatrical interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl  is to place it in an imaginary Italian city where everyone speaks in the native dialect.   

Corey Claire Annand (the little match girl) Valentina Golfieri (Angelica Maria Donnarumma) © Phil Conrad
Corey Claire Annand (the little match girl) Valentina Golfieri (Angelica Maria Donnarumma)
© Phil Conrad

The production is already a proven success, returning to the Lilian Baylis Studio after previous triumphant runs; but how do you keep an audience of primary school children engaged when the predominant language mixes gibberish and Italian? Apart from the aforementioned infants and their teachers, I was one of few adults enjoying this matinée; and, on this evidence, Team Pita accomplished the task with ease! Teachers should bottle it up and sell it to OFSTED.  Excitable though they were in the minutes leading up to the opening bars of Frank Moon’s score, there was barely a murmur from these mesmerised little people throughout the show. 

The reason lies largely in a work that is vivid and colourful. Imaginative and mobile sets together with late nineteenth century costumes came from the mind of Yann Seabra, a former dancer turned designer. The little Italian city of Santo Stefano sul Tuscio comes to life in varying clever perspectives; from the close-up lamp-post, “home” of Fiammetta (the little match girl), and her late grandmother’s gravestone; to the distant seductive views of warmly-lit homes; and a circle set above the stage that revolves to be either the moon seen from earth, or vice versa.          

Corey Claire Annand (the little match girl) and Angelo Smimmo © Phil Conrad
Corey Claire Annand (the little match girl) and Angelo Smimmo
© Phil Conrad
This atmospheric stage environment is charmingly complemented by Frank Moon’s music for one busy musician, played live on stage via a wide range of instruments, including something very much like a Theremin; but, on this occasion, not by Moon himself, but his alternate, Tim Van Eyken.

Eleven characters are portrayed by a cast of just four dancers, requiring adept and speedy costume transformations. Karl Fagerland Brekke plays four roles, while Angelo Smimmo and Faith Prendergast tackle three apiece. They comprise the uncaring Famiglia Donnarumma who cross paths frequently with the little match girl on her downward spiral through hypothermia and starvation. Fagerland Brekke has a second career waiting for him in pantomime – as one of Cinderella’s sisters – drawing much comedy from the super-tall mother; Prendergast is splendid as the spoilt child in petticoats; and Smimmo is the popinjay father, gluttonously salivating at the prospect of capitone and panetone for his Christmas feast (capitone, by the way, is conger eel, which Fulvio Donnarumma wears like a scarf).

Prendergast also crosses gender to play the rival match boy, Carletto, an upwardly mobile street trader who progresses from matches to lighters and has a minder (also Fagerland Brekke) to bully the competition. But, the prize for the most effective transformation has to go to Smimmo who morphs from the gluttonous dad to the spirit of Fiammetta’s aged grandmother, Nonna Luna; a role that requires melodious countertenor singing.   

Corey Claire Annand (The little match girl) © Phil Conrad
Corey Claire Annand (The little match girl)
© Phil Conrad
Corey Annand reprised her title role in a performance that captured the vulnerable, childish qualities of the much-abused match girl, mixed with bemusement and a little anger (not to mention an arson attack on the Donnarummas’ house).  As in Andersen’s original tale, Pita turns the story of a child dying of hypothermia, ignored by rich passers-by, into an uplifting experience. Not just by emphasising Fiammetta’s hopes and dreams but by literally lifting her up; not to heaven, as Andersen wrote, but to the moon and a surreal encounter with an astronaut, named Hank (Fagerland Brekke, again).  

Getting from a sleepy nineteenth century Italian city to a lunar landing is quite a stretch, reminiscent in many ways of that bizarre children’s classic, The Little Prince. Following Fiammetta’s ascent to the moon – thanks to Nonna Luna’s magic light – a spaceship lands and a miniature astronaut doll whizzes across the moon’s surface in a remote-controlled space buggy, as Pita plays with perspective again. It is the only part of the story that doesn’t gel, although it caused some amusement amongst the children.  

Back in 1845, Andersen was inspired to write The Little Match Girl by the mix of avarice and poverty that he witnessed in his native Denmark: issues that still resonate on street corners around the world, today. Pita has turned the essence of Andersen’s tale into a visually appealing spectacle that combines humour and pathos. He makes us laugh but he also presents a morality tale that exhibits the worst of human behaviour, subtly encouraging us to consider its contemporary relevance.