Review - Striking 12 (Union Theatre)

Striking 12 is a musical retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Match Girl, set in early-noughties New York. Brendan is newly and unhappily single, and slogging away at a desk job on New Years Eve, when, after an inundation of party invites from his overbearing colleagues, he runs into a cheery light bulb seller on his way home. After sending her away into the cold, he is inspired to read The Little Match Girl, and is struck by the idea that he may be taking life for granted.

Declan Bennett and Bronté Barbé in Striking 12
Photo credit - Tom Grace
Oliver Kaderbhai's pared down production makes good use of the actor-musician trend which is very much en-vogue right now, and the cast is well up to the task of playing and singing the story to life. Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda's music is played charmingly by the ensemble of five, with Andrew Linnie accompanying on piano, and although the music occasionally drowns out the vocals, the folksy pop score feels snappy and modern.

Declan Bennett perfectly inhabits Brendan, disguising sadness behind a wall of grumpiness that occasionally gives off one or two flickers of anger before extinguishing. Even his posture seems proud and confident, with just a hint of slouchiness giving away a dissatisfaction. Meanwhile, Bronté Barbé is radiant as The Match Girl. Sparky and effervescent, she wields a powerful voice which perfectly suits the score.

Declan Bennett in Striking 12
Photo credit - Tom Grace
Natalie Johnson's set design tells us everything we need to know about Brendan. His small apartment looks cozy but unkempt. The are books and candles adorning shelves on every wall, making the place feel lived-in, and giving us a sense of Brendan's life pre-break up. But there's a messiness too, reinforcing the apathy and discontent that Brendan expresses with his life, there's a takeaway carton sitting as if camouflaged on a haphazardly organised shelf, and at one point Brendan throws a leaflet onto a shelf to join a stack of assorted bits and bobs. The set tells us as much about Brendan's life as the story does, and paints a clear picture of his mindset at the start of the musical. He's got his life together, but only just about.

Lighting design is equally transportive, contrasting the warmth of Brendan's apartment with the cool whites and blues of the icy winter night outside. A noughties inspired display of hanging light bulbs gives the space added character.

Kate Robson-Stuart in Striking 12
Photo credit - Tom Grace
The story is interesting in premise, and the tone of the piece is well conveyed through music and design,  the only thing that prevents Striking 12 from reaching its full potential is the plot, which feels underdeveloped in some key areas. With a zippy 70 minute run time, there is little room to explore the characters at the heart of the story, and Brendan's chance encounter with the light bulb seller (an encounter which changes his life in a small yet very significant way) isn't a significant enough defining moment. The character traits which drive Brendan down a spiral of self-pity in the first half of the story seem to disappear much too conveniently, allowing for the plot to progress, and subsequently the retelling of The Little Match Girl, although the musical's most compelling aspect, comes into the story too late and feels rushed.

Nevertheless, Striking 12 is a bright musical, beautifully performed by a talented group of actor-musicians. Its optimistic message, rallying for care and compassion as an antidote to the selfishness and single-mindedness of modern society, feels extremely apt this year as the cold winter nights draw it. This is a little gift of a musical which has plenty to give its audience.