Orpheus – Little Bulb Theatre @ Battersea Arts Centre, until 11 May
It is always a joy to spend an evening at the Battersea Arts Centre as, no matter the quality of the production, it provides an opportunity to spend an evening inside one of London’s great Victorian buildings. Many companies have looked to make the space an integral part of the performance; Punchdrunk exploded into the public consciousness with the Masque of the Red Death, a production that exposed the development of their unique style to a wider audience. They turned the BAC on its head – celebrating its beautiful interiors whilst building pocket worlds within it and ending with a strange blend of gothic classicism.
The BAC has a strong history of supporting new companies and providing spaces for those whose work doesn’t fit into more obvious spaces. The roll-call of success stories show a keen eye for understanding what works and what has audience appeal; providing a London-base for Kneehigh and partnering with Ridiculusmus, Complicite and Told by an Idiot demonstrates an important ability to spot the difference between the threadbare and the deliberately ramshackle.
It remains to be seen where the emerging company, Little Bulb Theatre, slots into this picture but if awards were given for fitting productions to locations then their charming and quirky take on the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice would be walking away with a basketful of silverware. The BAC proves a lovely backdrop to an evening that strives valiantly to give a flavour of the 1930’s Parisian scene but knows enough of its flaws to have its tongue placed firmly in cheek throughout.
The problem, encountered in dreamthinkspeak’s latest production, with site-specific work is often they try to shoehorn a concept into a space that does not fit, or that the budget cannot do justice to. What remains is often a po-faced production that hopes you won’t notice that more time was spent dressing the set then developing characters.
Little Bulb’s Orpheus has similarly paper-thin characters – Orpheus is apparently Django Reinhardt but, other than explaining his ability with the guitar, that fact has no bearing on the play and is not developed with any real sense of purpose – but it spends a great deal of energy winning over its audience with an exuberance that is in keeping with the vaudeville staging.
The silent movie backdrop is another way of avoiding explicit character development in favour of style without undermining the production. It allows for big, expressive gestures and emotion demonstrated through action rather than internalised – another reminder to the world of the music hall. This creates a deliberate undercurrent of comedy that runs through the production; to the modern audience this style of acting seems so alien – a strange hybrid of Victorian stage-acting, mime and early 20th century cinema – that it is difficult not to warm to despite it undermining the tragedy within the Eurydice story.
Little Bulb are well supported in their endeavours by beguiling central performances; Eugenie Pastor as Eurydice and Dominic Conway as Orpheus look as if they have just stepped of the set of the latest Dietrich film. Pastor’s doe-eyes deserve a special mention of their own, as they retain a now almost-lost Clara Bow-like ability to portray a moving tableaux of longing to tragedy to absurdity in one fluid movement, whilst Conway’s profile is every-inch the slightly louche heartthrob – never the matinee idol but the one that parents would warn their daughters about.
The cast work hard to support a slightly flimsy premise of updating the myth to the 1930s. They are not overawed by the talents that have taken this story before them and incorporate a range of numbers from sources as diverse as Monteverdi and Saint-Saëns to the inevitable Piaf into their set. There is an impressiveness of the morphing of musicians into actors and back again, and it is credit to Little Bulb that the lack of slickness with which this often occurs is played-up with a wry wink rather than ignored.
Most striking is the fact the original compositions do not stand out of place amongst the music of more famous predecessors. Indeed the highlight of the show is the wonderful La chanson de Persephone and the following La Decision, which mark out the musicianship of the cast and the spine-tingling – and perhaps too often hidden – voice of Tom Penn. As he sings it is as if, for a moment, the exuberance, charm and whimsy melt away and the audience are left with an unsparing look into the heart of tragic tale that has captivated artists for centuries.
Little Bulb Theatre’s Orpheus contains flaws but then a flawed gemstone is still beautiful to the person wearing it. Words like whimsy and quirky seem entirely suitable and at-home at this production; not in the way that they have been re-appropriated by affluent Greenwich Village media-types to promote shows starring Zach Braff or Zooey Deschachel’s fringe, or by cupcake-wielding, Brompton-riding sewing club enthusiasts, but in their original incarnations that suggest the hint of the unexpected that skirts the edges of being a capricious folly but contains enough charm to see it through.
Orpheus marks a step-forward for the still young Little Bulb Theatre and it will be interesting to see how they develop their style so that it brings an emotional heft that matches their undoubted stylistic ability.