Little Bulb Theatre’s enchanting reworking of the Orpheus myth returns to the Grand Hall at Battersea Arts Centre and if anything it’s even more magical on second viewing.
It’s a delicious thing, this show. Frankly, given the amazing space they’ve been given to play in and the proven appeal of many of the ingredients they’ve chosen to play with, it would be a surprise if it were otherwise. But that’s not to diminish Littlle Bulb’s invention and skill. Much like in a Wes Anderson film there are boxes within boxes, frames within frames, to their handling of the narrative. The story of Orpheus is told in the style of 1930s Parisian cabaret, with the Great Hall bedecked with red velvet and an array of tables in front of the stage behind which sit more conventional raked seating. The lovers are portrayed by legendary guitarist Django Reinhardt and an Édith Piaf-alike chanteuse Yvette Pépin as played by Little Bulb’s Dominic Conway and Eugenie Pastor. While Conway’s Orpheus remains mute, a calm, smiling presence, his guitar speaking for him, the angular Pastor purrs and smoulders as Piaf/Pepin/Eurydice, rolling her words around, revelling in the undulations of her accent.
Much of the storytelling takes the form of a series of mime sequences and tableaux performed against a backdrop of Debussy and silent movie style-captions. The cast don bunny ears and buck teeth to play woodland creatures or drape and cape themselves in white to play the denizens of the underworld. The dancing is intentionally heavy-footed, and there’s an air of polished amateurishness to the whole enterprise which is mostly pitched at just the right level to render it endearing rather than overly arch. The musicianship as ever is exemplary, but then that’s something of a given with these guys.
Alexander Scott’s production has some truly dazzling moments, particularly in the second half. The song ‘La Chanson de Perséphone’ performed by Tom Penn in male falsetto reminiscent of Anthony and the Johnsons is genuinely haunting, the deployment of the Grand Hall’s mighty organ remains an incredible, reverberative treat, and the climactic sequence – Orpheus and Eurydice’s last desperate dash towards the light – has the audience holding their breath.
While the staging on the whole feels slightly tighter than it did first time around, there are some issues with the lengthy ‘jazz’ interval. While the audience are encouraged to come and go as they wish while the band plays on, few did, and the resulting drag threatens to, if not quite break, than at least dent the production’s spell. This isn’t Little Bulb’s most ambitious show – it doesn’t have the delicacy or the heart-knotting quality of Crocosmia or the divisive alien energy of Squally Showers – it’s a romantic response to an incredible space, a confection, albeit an exquisite one – but taken as an experience in itself, as a night of music and magic and fizz and copious, warm-hearted charm, it’s vastly entertaining and intensely happy-making.