In this bewitching piece of immersive theatre, which approaches the often-told Greek myth through the framing device of a 1930s Parisian cabaret soirée, Orpheus emerges as the titular character of someone else’s story. He isn’t absent like Godot, or deceased like Rebecca – on the contrary, we see him frequently, making grand entrances into the spotlight, and the production still uses his journey to and from the Underworld as its primary narrative. Yet his character remains an enigma, paling in comparison to the vibrant presence of Eurydice that dominates the proceedings.
Little Bulb Theatre must have known they were causing this imbalance, by casting incarnations of Django Reinhardt and Édith Piaf as the respective lovers. Reinhardt, while greatly admired among jazz fans and guitar aficionados, just doesn’t cut as iconic a figure as La Môme Piaf, with her indulgent voice soaked in pain and passion. Brilliantly evoked by Eugenie Pastor, in the guise of mistress of ceremonies Yvette Pépin, she frequently outshines Dominic Conway as Reinhardt/Orpheus. Admittedly, this is not the fault of Conway, an accomplished guitarist and endearing presence, but simply the natural consequence of making Pépin/Eurydice the only speaking character in the entire piece, and lavishing upon her so many centre-stage moments; Pastor seizes this unfair advantage and runs off with the whole show.
Orpheus is the enchanting product of a win-win formula. Mythical deities + gypsy jazz + French chansons + masks + puppetry + silent film captions + Debussy + festooned lights + wine + charcuterie = MAGIC. Each failsafe component contributes to an intoxicating, otherworldly atmosphere that guarantees to capture the imagination. It might be tempting, departing under the unromantic glare of Clapham streetlamps outside, to speculate that such enchantment was to the credit of Ovid, Saint-Saëns and Bourgogne Pinot Noir, and that Little Bulb Theatre’s cast would have had to defecate onstage to stand any chance of ruining such pre-packaged magic. It might also be extremely unfair, since the company have woven considerable magic of their own here, particularly in an original composition, ‘La Chanson de Perséphone’, sung in male falsetto and expertly judged to create a pin-drop moment. At the climactic moment of tragedy, the performance has engaged the audience so subliminally that Orpheus’s fateful turn at the Underworld’s gate and the inevitable loss of Eurydice – events anticipated by all who know the famous story – elicit an audible response of dismay from the audience that sounds utterly unintentional.
The series of mimes and tableaux that make up the dramatic portion of the evening are so simply rendered, with ungainliness of movement and shoddiness of props regularly used for comic payoffs, that the overall effect is one of charming amateurishness. Distanced from the negative aspect of this by the “play-within-a-cabaret” framing device, the company play up to their personae in a manner reminiscent of Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals. Amusing as this may be, it depends almost entirely upon the charisma of the company, an intangible quality not present in every cast member. The privileged star-turn of Pastor aside, this band of performers remain quite anonymous and individually-forgettable, despite their evident versatility and musical dextrousness. They fulfil their multiple roles with the impressive skill of technicians rather than the showy flair of performers. Perhaps, as is the case with much devised work, the creators who conceived and shaped it are not always the best equipped performers to execute it.
Really, though, that’s irrelevant in the face of such commitment to an all-enveloping experience, one that undeniably delivers on its promise of magic. There could have been many ways in which this seemingly-guaranteed theatrical formula fell short of alchemy, and Little Bulb Theatre’s success with Orpheus is no less admirable just because they’ve made failure with it seem so unlikely.
Read the Exeunt interview with Little Bulb