Meow Meow's Little Match Girl, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Thursday 20 December 2012
Her iconoclastic maitresse of ceremonies was the best thing about Kneehigh's otherwise lacklustre West End stage version of The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg.
In La Clique, she performed one of the maddest and funniest sketches I have ever seen when she sang a protest song from Nazi Germany and roped in various male members of the audience to support her as she angled her limbs into a precarious swastika. Now Meow Meow, the “kamikaze” queen of cabaret, is back in town with this singularly alternative take on the poignant Hans Andersen story or, as she styles it, “a seventy-three-minute showbiz extravaganza on child poverty and social disenfranchisement”.
The idea is that she's barely through her first number (“Too Darn Hot” in German) when the lighting grid explodes, plunging Anna Cordingley's flashily camp set of chandeliers and glittery fringed curtains into darkness.
With her trademark shtik – part bawdy dominatrix, part chaotic breakdown waiting to happen – Meow Meow is soon arranging alternative illumination (“I'm not called the Mother Courage of Performance Art for nothing”).
Invading the stalls, she cadges mobile phones from hapless punters or forces them to shine torches on her. Others are enlisted to generate energy by waving their arms about (“a human wind farm”) or by furious pedalling on a bike so that this largely one-woman show can go on.
The oppositions in the Andersen tale between light and dark, warmth and cold, bleak reality and radiant vision find a distorted reflection in the incongruities between his defenceless heroine and this endlessly knowing cosmopolitan star with her slashed, spangly scarlet gown and her taste for straddling brow-levels as widely as she enjoys splaying her legs.
But though she sings her way strikingly through a typically eclectic musical catalogue (joined by Chris Ryan as her Stalker/Dream Man for a malevolently gleeful rendition of Coward's “Whatever Happened to the Tots?”) and though there are some unforgettable sequences (a number sung in the glow of a ripped-down “Exit” notice; a spectacular apotheosis through a three-tier chandelier), the show is too suffocatingly self-aware ever to touch your heart.
You can't take seriously those sticky moments where Meow Meow emotes about the present-day equivalents of the Match Girl because you know the rug will be instantly whipped out from under your feet. It's no surprise that a neon sign declaring “Whatever” closes the proceedings with an arch, bathetic shrug.
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