Theatre review: Meow Meow’s Little Match Girl

by **

Dear Dad

A cat may go to a monastery, but she still remains a cat.

— goes a famous Ethiopian saying. No, I am not saying Melbourne is a monastery; nor do I mean for this to be a criticism of the internationally-adored cabaret diva. In fact, taken literally, Meow Meow would probably regard this reference as a personal compliment, I suspect.

Based on Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson’s 1845 fairy tale, Meow Meow’s Little Match Girl is a massively adapted piece of theatre with which the diva says she wants to use to make a statement about the ubiquity of the abandoned child and about how painfully resonant the issues of child abuse, neglect and destitution remain in the present time.

Perhaps to persuade the audience to examine this heart-breaking story through her wildly bewitching eyes, the production opens with an invitation for us to enter Meow Meow’s social world. Emerging on a bed sprawling beside a half-naked man, she asks the audience where she is, then shovels her transient partner away, mouthing a risqué remark after him.

And both these elements — viewer participation and ribaldry — will come to be the motifs in Meow Meow’s telling of the poignant tale: a little girl who fails to sell any matchstick on a bitterly cold New Year’s Eve is afraid to go home for fear of being flogged by her fierce and abusive father. She lights a match to warm herself. When a shooting star ploughs across the sky above her head, the girl recollects her late grandmother telling about how that means a soul is risen to heaven. Lighting the next match, she sees an image of her beloved grandmother and so goes on to light match after match to keep her grandmother close to her. The next morning, passers-by find the little girl dead in the corner of the street — her soul lifted into heaven by her grandmother’s spirit.

In Anna Cordingley’s stunning set on a gorgeous thrust stage complete with a colossal chandelier, however, the backdrop of Meow Meow’s creative production in summer-approaching Australia could hardly be more unsuitable. So, whilst crooning through Cole Porter’s It’s Too Darn Hot, the performer orchestrates a power failure that plunges Merlyn Theatre into pitch darkness. Then, like the fable’s protagonist, she begins to light one match after another — in an act that feels unfortunately more like a stylised afterthought than a recreation of the fairy-tale’s bleak story plot.

Struck by Anderson’s callous passers-by, representing the wider society’s indifference to others’ needy lives, Meow Meow sets out to rouse The Good Samaritan in all of us. Pretending to be a damsel in distress, she seeks succour from co-performer, Mitchell Butel (splendid!), who masquerades as a member of the unsuspecting audience, and from other ‘hapless’ front seat spectators. By enjoining them to variously offer light from their mobile phones, jump on a stationary bike plugged to a makeshift generator, swing their arms as windmill or rub her thighs to get energy pumping once again, she tries (one thinks) to underscore the power of harnessed human effort — despite all the time peppering her lines with bold lascivious prattle.

Nonetheless, through a series of songs composed or re-arranged by Megan Washington (Wolf Song) and through others from collaboration between Meow Meow herself and Iain Grandage (Living the Dream), her sultry voice evokes images of elusive dreams and vulnerability — only that the selected numbers seem to conjure women’s fragility more than children’s susceptibility.

In yet another subversion of expectations, the dreams of Meow Meow’s little match girl are not of a grandmother but of a dashing young man (Butel) making a Phantom of the Opera-like entrance that is grand, dramatic and resplendent. Nevertheless, together, they deliver a sparkling dance and memorable duet of Noel Coward’s What’s Going to Happen to the Tots — a choice eminently more aligned with the production’s intended conception.

Still, Meow Meow would perhaps want the ultimate spectacle of the night to be the falling chandelier that descends to envelop her and sweep her like an angel to the ceiling heights, before Butel gives a moving rendition of The Book Of Love by The Magnetic Fields over her limp and lifeless body.

Directed by Marion Potts, this highly original production may have stemmed from well-meaning intentions and big statement ambitions, but these seem to have been regretfully lost in the lewd and glittering cabaret act.

So, in the end, one leaves the theatre, mildly entertained but rather unsure about whom the subject of advocacy really is: the impoverished child or the sensuously fragile woman — the word “WHATEVER” garishly lit across the backdrop in the final scenes only adds to the sense of self-denigration and ridicule.

And yes, the cat can take herself to a monastery and be imbued with scholarly doctrines and authoritative ideals, but, ultimately, she still remains the voluptuous, luscious and sensual cat. Meow!