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Striking 12 review at Union Theatre, London – ‘slight, but affecting’

Declan Bennett and Bronte Barbe in Striking 12 at the Union Theatre. Photo: Tom Grace

With its eclectic score and bittersweet seasonal message, Striking 12 interweaves Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl with a tale of modern malaise to touching effect. Here, a cast of five actor-musicians and pianist Andrew Linnie conjure both the hustle and bustle of contemporary New York and icy 1840s Denmark in this chamber musical’s first UK production, which premiered Off-Broadway in 2006.

Declan Bennett’s Brendan is the model of a jaded office worker, working late on New Year’s Eve, while his friends try to cajole him into partying. Bronte Barbe, in glorious voice, plays both Andersen’s original Match Girl and her modern equivalent – a door-knocker who sells full-spectrum lightbulbs that purport to combat seasonal affective disorder. It’s a neat if somewhat contrived update that gives the grumpy PowerPoint-pusher a focus for his refound compassion and later romantic interest.

Brendan Milburn, Valerie Vigoda and Rachel Sheinkin’s piece spans pop, jazz and show tunes in 70 minutes – its brevity means plot is prioritised over character development. But the ensemble is deployed inventively with simple-but-effective choreography to push the story along.

Alongside Danielle Kassarate’s twinkling narrator, Kate Robson-Stuart and Leon Scott manoeuvre the sliding-bookshelf set to create each locale, while playing soaring violin lines and driving drumbeats, respectively. Alex Lewer’s lighting effectively switches between Brendan’s warm flat and the wintry exteriors.

The sound balance is occasionally compromised in the more raucous numbers, with unamplified instruments and quickfire lyrics lost in the mix, but Barbe’s slower songs, such as Matches for Sale, really tug at the heartstrings. Ultimately, Bennett’s bah-humbug protagonist and the unflinching appraisal of the original story mean this winter warmer manages to avoid becoming overly sentimental.

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Slight but affecting musical update of The Little Matchgirl, with standout performances from Declan Bennett and Bronte Barbe