Little Bulb’s Orpheus has been touring since it first played Battersea Arts Centre in 2013, yet somehow it managed to completely pass me by. As such, watching its return to the BAC’s newly reopened Grand Hall was a rather lovely journey of realisation. I thought Orpheus would be about, well, Orpheus. But it’s really about the trust we place in music, and each other.
Little Bulb play an ensemble of actors in a 1930s jazz bar, who in turn play various characters in their recreation of the myth of Orpheus. He follows his love Eurydice into the underworld, but loses her forever after he, having been told not to look back, does precisely that. I wondered why Little Bulb have chosen this particular myth to stage, and I think because it’s an ancient, epic tale which boils down to a man doing something stupid. Orpheus the poet is fallible and foolish, but this show is about the strength of the ensemble, in gorgeous harmony.
The first half of the production is clowning-heavy and jazz-lite. And it is great clowning; every moment is a punchline. Dominic Conway, as Django Reinhardt, playing Orpheus, spends the first ten minutes vaguely waving his hand around his harp whilst a full orchestration plays. The set changes crack me up as well. Instead of doing the ‘whoah we’re doing physical theatre taking a chair off stage’ to get rid of an inconvenient set piece, the cast silly-walk to centre stage, whip off a tablecloth like it’s the most dramatic thing they’ve ever done, and do the same silly-walk back into the wings.
Mary Drummond’s set is built right into the proscenium arch at the back of the hall, with artificial wings and music-hall red curtains shrinking the playing space into a town-hall-size stage. The actors all seem slightly too big for the space, which makes their dances and movements more animated, with the charm of a beloved small-town pantomime. The acting revels in the fallibilities of theatre and pretence, but the music takes us to the divine.
The first half is entertaining and well made, but at the interval, I feel a little bit sceptical. It feels like this show has more that it hasn’t revealed to us yet, and I am right. There is a 15 minute musical interlude after the interval. The house lights stay up; I feel myself relax. I realise I’ve been slightly on edge scribbling notes in the pitch black. This mini-concert energises the audience, and a few people get up and dance. The rest of the show is imbued with this fantastic energy, both in the audience and the narrative. The company-within-a-company moves away from the mortal realm to a jazz-soundtracked underworld, the pace quickens, the lighting states go crazy.
The interlude has schooled the audience in trusting in the music and we are taken on a soaring emotional journey within the silliness. The absolute highlight is Tom Penn singing ‘La Chanson de Persephone’ in a full falsetto. Everything about his greek-goddess costume and matching headdress, the triplets dancing around him, is a comedic signifier, and people are still laughing, but I am utterly entranced. Little Bulb are masters at treading the line between comedy and tragedy; they get me almost at the verge of tears, then they grin and silly-walk off stage. At the close of Orpheus, they sing their final note triumphantly, the lights fade to black, and the last image on stage is Hades’ light-up feather-boa headdress. Brilliant.
Orpheus is playing at the Battersea Arts Centre until 30th December. More info here.