Writer Silva Semerciyan has turned Hans Christian Andersen’s brief, frightening tale The Tinderbox (and I remember the image of those big dogs with saucer eyes haunting me from the pages of my book of fairy tales) into an epic, devastating story. The result is a timeless lesson about the lengths parents will go to to save their own child, or the lengths those with power will go to to retain it. The fairytale classic beginning of a prophecy of doom told about a baby princess leads to bloody and hopeless war, ruthless laws and terrible poverty. The show has also, wisely, updated the role of the 17-year-old princess, making her a smart architecture nerd who has been kept hidden from the reality of her parents’ tyrannical rule.
Of course, theatre is about more than just story and the Young Company has done a great job with all aspects of this show. The live musical accompaniment sets the tone – occasionally playful, occasionally loud and scary but mostly thoughtful and brooding. Pianist (and musical director) Hettie Feiler gets it just right (including at one point crouching on the floor and plucking the piano’s strings to spooky effect) but I must also mention the remarkable singing voice of Lorenzo Niyongabo (who plays the king).
Props and staging are kept quite simple. Wooden chairs and wooden sticks form the basis of scenes from battleground to pub to palace to forest. They also add percussion to the soundtrack, which often thunders ominously through the Studio theatre. There was a moment when the cast, dressed as soldiers, pointed sticks at the audience and lunged with a loud grunt and it was genuinely scary.
The actors, for all their youth, are great. In fact for most of the time you can easily forget their youth. I was particularly impressed by Beth Collins as the queen, and by whichever member of the ensemble cast it was who played the heavily pregnant prison guard. Occasionally the mask would slip, when players were on stage but not speaking, and I would remember briefly that these are teenagers who have just devoted their school holiday to final rehearsals. But only briefly.
Most of the cast had a box of matches affixed to their costume so that a recurring motif of striking matches was used for everything from falling in love to adding yet more fear or tension. But it’s not all dark – the show also has a sense of humour, and of course a love story. Because it is still at heart a fairy tale.
Disclaimer: A free ticket was kindly supplied to me by the theatre in return for contributing a review to Theatre Bristol Writers.