Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl” is trim and sentimental. On New Year’s Eve, a poor waif lights matches to fight the cold. With each match, she hallucinates about the joys of Christmas. Presently, she freezes to death and flies to heaven.
By her own estimation, Meow Meow is a “post-post-modern diva” who deals in “kamikaze cabaret”. She is no waif. Joan of Arc is “flaming” in her head beside “naughty pyromaniac children”, “witches at the stake”, global warming and the Catherine wheel. Meow is fiercely undomesticated and her Little Match Girl, born in Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, is a bold step beyond Andersen’s “agit-prop fairy tale”, as she labels it.
“We’re going to break the cycle of world hunger and child poverty,” the cabaret artist purrs. She sets about her task with the skittish energy of a rogue firework. Meow is not inhibited by the natural boundaries presented by a stage. Frequently she invades the auditorium, recruiting obedient people – “rub each other, rub me!” – with frenetic zeal. Her social message, condensed into the injunction “be careful with each other”, pops up in the course of 16 numbers – Wagner, Purcell, Porter, Coward – and is garnished with tutus, artificial chaos and a huge chandelier (not explained). If the menu of destitution and death looks grisly, the presentation is vibrantly upbeat.
Meow is eccentric, self-deprecating and marvellously unafraid to look ugly; she is imaginative and tasteful (unlike Andersen, she expunges sentimentality); her voice can sound haunting or huskily lusty. But her greatest gift is to seem so vividly alive. Her stage presence is an urgent fact that demands attention. Beside Meow, most performers (not least, her supporting artist, Chris Ryan) feel airbrushed.
The main problem is one of balance. Meow claims that thousands of children will sleep on Britain’s streets tonight. That is the meat of her festive feast, but the trimmings – frothy cabaret japes – upstage it. The pill is sweetened. If it were too bitter – too serious – audiences used to vapid winter diets of pantomimes and West End musicals might just gag.
Other problems are technical. Cabaret feeds on fumes and sweat and Queen Elizabeth Hall is relentlessly airy. The set is irrelevant, the plot is missing and bits of the script drag. In such conditions, Meow can sputter, fizz and flare, but not combust. It is a good show, but a better one lurks behind it.