Wednesday, 5 December 2018

REVIEW: Striking 12 at the Union Theatre


Bronte Barbe is a fine performer and recently toured as Carole King in the wonderful Beautiful and appeared in the excellent Girlfriends concert at the Bishopgate Institute. It is rather surprising and quiet pleasing to find her in this small scale off Broadway musical at the Union Theatre and she is definitely the best thing about the show.

She plays The Match Girl in this modern version of the Hans Christian Anderson melancholy short story about the little girl on a cold New Year’s Eve, here set in modern day New York City. She is a seller of lights to brighten the lives of those with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and finds herself like the original Danish namesake on the streets alone without buyers for her product. Her despair is summed up in one of the most engaging and emotional songs of the show, “Can’t go home” as she fears going home without sales but can’t stay out in the freezing night. When she knocks on the door of Brendan (Declan Bennett) and he rejects her sixty second sales pitch, she is cast back into the cold. 

Brendan is equally lonely sole, having broken up with his fiancĂ©, and rejecting his friends invitations to party. He finds solace in reading the Hans Christian Anderson story. His own melancholy is summed up in another of the better songs in the show, a slow bluesy “Green and red (and I’m feeling blue)”. Here accompanied on an old guitar, piano, violin and drums he laments on his own life. His denial to his friends of his current metal state is summed in his other good song “Fine, Fine, Fine”.

The problem with the production is the dreadful sound balance in this small intimate venue. Though individually mic’d with their New York accents, the words in most songs are lost especially when competing with the piano (played by Andrew Linnie) and violin. It undermines the whole show and the performers and makes it harder to appreciate the music and lyrics by Brendan Milburn, Valerie Vigoda and Rachel Sheinkin.

The humour in this slight story is weak although there are some good moments like when the drummer Leon Scott, acts as the answer phone and the TV channels. Danielle Kassarate as the narrator and Kate Robson-Stuart (on violin) look like they are enjoying themselves but are mostly superfluous to the story and irritatingly Director Oliver Kaderbhai has them interacting with Brendan when he is alone in his flat. He keeps the show short, at just over an hour, and there are some good ideas as in the opening sequence where the cast light matches or later when they light candles and the sawdust and blue lights do give a cold winter’s feel to the stage.

Overall the story is too slight, too much is read or narrated, and the sound mix muffles the lyrics for it to work but its message at a time of celebration have a care for those less well off on the streets still comes across as a timely reminder to us all. And Bronte Barbe strikes the right note.

Review by Nick Wayne

Rating: ★★

Seat: Row B | Price of ticket: £25
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