Reviews Bristol Published 20 January 2012

The Marvellous and Unlikely Fete of Little Upper Downing

Tobacco Factory ⋄ 18th - 21st January and touring until 25th March 2012

Little Bulb go rural.

Tom Phillips

Having given their folk-themed tale of warring villages a few trial run-outs last year, the seemingly tireless Little Bulb are now taking it out on a national tour. This being Little Bulb, however, said tour isn’t your bog-standard round of studio-scale fringe-y theatres and festivals. With a few notable exceptions (including, of course, its opening stint at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory), it’s a string of one-night stands in village halls and rural arts centres scattered across Cumbria, Kent, Lincolnshire, Wales. Which, given the subject matter, couldn’t be more appropriate – though it’ll be interesting to see what village audiences make of the company’s faux-naif take on ‘we don’t like strangers round here’-type rustic foibles.

Not that the production is some kind of smart-arse urbanite scamper through a series of straw-chewing stereotypes. As in previous outings,like last year’s Operation Greenfield, Little Bulb’s humour remains laughing-with-not-at affectionate, and if characters like Polly the baker (who’s married to a man with a cake phobia, naturally), Derek the would-be folk superstar and his father Derek the pub landlord initially come across as being a tad slow on the uptake, that generally turns out to be a good thing: their lack of worldliness and concomitant excess of imagination and humanity are theirstrength and their charm.

Technically speaking, this is a show within a show. Seth (Alex Scott), Peter (Dominic Conway), Charlotte (Shamira Turner) and Mary (Clare Beresford) announce themselves to be the Little Upper Downing Folk Society, and after a few preliminary forays into characteristically accomplished but slightly off-kilter folk tunes (‘It’s background music – we’ll make sure you know when the show begins’), they embark on the tale of how two feuding villages became one, thanks to Derek Badger and Christopher Roaring, musicians born on opposite sides of the Great Divide. Mind you, it takes some cunning skuldugger (not to mention audience participation) to bring together the mutually hostile residents of Little Downing and Upper Downing, and there are plenty of knockabout adventures, unlikely characters and playful digressions along the way, before the eponymous gathering does indeed bring about a marvellous and unlikely resolution.

Little Bulb approach this seemingly slight tale of warring country folk with characteristic zest. The same ramshackle resourcefulness and ad-hoc inventiveness that brought a distinctively cheery and engaging atmosphere to Operation Greenfield and Sporadical are present and correct, while the adept segues in and out of song remain an absolutely key part of the company style.

Where The Marvellous & Unlikely Fete has the edge on its predecessors, perhaps, is that it’s not as cluttered; it’s still busy and knockabout, but its energy’s more focused and there’s less of a sense that things have been thrown in just because they happen to make the cast laugh. Similarly, while the religious trope in Operation Greenfield seemed to be something of an arbitrary add-on, this show is much more firmly grounded and alludes to some pretty serious and pertinent themes of division, prejudice and understanding – albeit with a delightfully light touch and via a spate of good-natured Romeo and Juliet-related gags. The name ‘Downing’, after all, might put you in mind of somewhere else where different factions are trying to figure out how to get along.


Tom Phillips

Tom has lived in Bristol for 25 years. After ten years working in radio, became a freelance journalist, and is now chief sub-editor for Venue magazine. He’s published two collections of poetry (Reversing into the Cold War and Burning Omaha) and eight of his plays have been staged in Bristol and Bath, including Hotel Illyria and Arbeit Macht Frei. Having spent three summers idling around eastern Europe by train, he’s now studying for a PhD in travel writing at Reading University.

The Marvellous and Unlikely Fete of Little Upper Downing Show Info

Produced by Little Bulb

Written by Little Bulb

Cast includes Clare Beresford, Dominic Conway, Alexander Scott, Shamira Turner




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