Alice, Daniel, Molly and Violet are four teenagers growing up in the middle of Middle England – the village of Stokely, to be precise, where the only distractions from school are church, a Christian youth club and the annual village talent competition. Alice (Shamira Turner) is a maths nerd, fond of quoting mind-boggling equations; Daniel (Dominic Conway) is ‘commanding’ but gauche; Molly (Clare Beresford) strokes her Good News Bible and busily bashes the drums; Violet (Eugenie Pastor) is a French Catholic, smokes and has a dog called Henri.
The four of them form a band which, after an excursion into wistful folk music, arrives at the talent competition as the eponymous Operation Greenfield and perform what amounts to a mini rock opera based on the Annunciation (complete with Alice up a stepladder as ‘God’s busiest messenger’, the angel Gabriel). Along the way, there’s adolescent confusion a-plenty, mismatched conversations, abrupt non-sequiturs, awkward sexuality and a veritable display cabinet of teenage idiosyncrasies.
All wide-eyed ingenuousness, Little Bulb perform this musical yarn with reckless verve, enlisting everything from huge glasses of Forest Fruits squash and a kitsch plastic cross to Carmen Miranda masks and a cardboard cut-out Elvis to embellish what is a fairly frail story with inventive snapshot set-pieces and physical imagery. As with Little Bulb’s previous outings, like the family reunion-themed nautical folk musical Sporadical, there’s an engaging air of ramshackle improvisation and frenetic near-anarchy about the whole production, but the precision of the choreography and the casual musical virtuosity attest that this is a company who know what they’re up to (even if the audience sometimes doesn’t). The transition from Violet’s first lesson in playing bass, plodding along to David Bowie’s ‘Five Years’, into a full-on, slightly sinister, bemasked wig-out, complete with Alice’s lesbian fantasy and deflationary pathos at the end (‘So that was all a dream?’ asks would-be guitar hero Daniel, somewhat woefully) is a case in point: a wittily orchestrated piece of DIY spectacle and musical theatre.
As a company, it’s almost impossible not to like Little Bulb. Brimful of energy and enthusiasm, they are, quite frankly, endearing – and the polar opposite of po-faced experimentalism. Whether Operation Greenfield constitutes their finest hour and a half, though, isn’t quite so clear. Whilst the show is swathed in Christian language and imagery (there’s a lovely moment when God and the Devil play scissors-paper-stone for the soul of Eve in the Garden of Eden), religion remains something of a ‘given’, unexplored in any way beyond the surface differences between Catholic and Protestant church services. Similarly, whilst the frenetic pace helps generate a sense of teenage bewilderment at the mysterious goings-on of the rest of the world, the sheer busy-ness can seem overdone at times, and a bit more breathing space in some of the most breakneck scenes wouldn’t go amiss, if only to dispel the impression that they’re only there because they happen to make for a decent visual gag.
That said, Operation Greenfield is very far from being a dud. Plotting the emotional vagaries of growing up in village-green England, it celebrates a kind of geeky ‘ordinariness’ (which proves to be apocalyptically extraordinary in the final number) and offers a fresh and entertaining take on the usually rather dry and issue-obsessed theatre of adolescence.