One thing Little Bulb can’t be accused of is lacking ambition. After mounting an entire gypsy jazz opera in Orpheus, the theatre company have ditched the instruments and slipped on the dancing shoes for their latest Fringe show, a mad whirlwind tour through the 1980s via pliés and pirouettes. But the shift is not restricted to genre. There is something more audaciously zany, more fearless and more defiantly outward looking than in previous work, as the nostalgia and introspective consideration of music that characterised Orpheus is replaced with an aesthetic that manages to be both brilliantly weird and fiercely political. The charm is still there, but it now has added bite.
In Squally Showers, Little Bulb’s gloriously wacky merry-go-round of characters are weathering the storm of an unsettled decade from their television news studio. As they struggle to come to terms with the sudden death of a colleague, the staff look back through the fog of the years, summoning a dreamlike flurry of pressure, excitement and decadence. Staff are hired, departments are shuffled and parties get wildly out of hand.
Like the era it evokes, this is a show of extremes. Ever inventive, Little Bulb have even more fun with design and props than usual, using their leap into outright strangeness as an excuse to create more and more outrageous but beautiful stage images. There’s still the endearing, homemade wonkiness, with an overhead projector offering nostalgic charm, but the company have also allowed themselves to go a little crazy. Bubble machines receive liberal use, while brilliantly tacky glitter curtains act as a gateway for the cast’s many entrances and exits, as they frantically exchange a series of increasingly ridiculous wigs. The dance itself is enthusiastic if not always accomplished, gleefully relishing its own silliness (think slightly shoddy ballet and a brilliantly timed bit of the worm).
While the show’s short scenes – almost like a series of madcap sketches – offer plenty of quirky comedy, it’s the captivating strangeness of the wordless sequences that are most striking, offering a dazzling collage of images. In one, a hedonistic office party becomes a visual metaphor for the whole decade, as bank notes are carelessly propelled through the air by a wind machine, mess steadily accumulates on the stage, a human wolf is on the prowl and a performer in a Margaret Thatcher mask gleefully tramples over a map of the UK, holding a model of the globe aloft. Another sequence becomes more surreal again, offering a hypnotic parade of strangeness to the dulcet tones of ‘Send in the Clowns’.
There are still some elements here that could do with further development, but as the herald of a new direction for this company, it offers tantalising promise. If the spirit of the Fringe is experimentation, risk, invention and discovery, then Little Bulb have embraced it wholeheartedly.