A most unexpected adventure

Antarctica – Little Bulb @ Battersea Arts Centre, until 04 January 2014 (tickets)

Astute readers of this blog will most likely have guessed that I am not between the ages of two and six. They may well have also concluded, given the amount of theatre I am able to watch, it is ANTARCTICA-11 Paul Blakemorelikely that I have either a very forgiving partner or no small children of my own. As a result it may be surprising to find Civilian Theatre at the Battersea Arts Centre on a Saturday afternoon to join Little Bulb and their ‘brave explorers club’ on a 55-minute adventure to Antarctica (not bad going – it takes me over 2 hours to get to Gloucester at Christmas).

Antarctica is a show for children from Little Bulb, the theatre company that thoroughly charmed this reviewer when they took full advantage of the Battersea Arts Centre’s period décor to present a wonderfully innovative take on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth.

ANTARCTICA-18 Paul BlakemoreDespite the tragedy of Eurydice they managed to introduce a humour built on whimsical charm and a very intelligent silliness that gave Orpheus a really unique feel, and it felt that their creative and spirited approach to story-telling would be perfect for the world of children’s theatre.

Paying close attention to their audience they have built up the silliness but, and this is crucial to all children’s theatre, they haven’t dumbed down the approach. At no point do you feel that Little Bulb are patronising or phoning it in. This is not Nativity 3, where if you look closely you can see £ signs where the actors’ pupils should be.

Each child is afforded the respect that any adult would be, and this is evident in the humour that runs deep throughout the show. Jokes have a structure and intelligence that acts as a reminder that there should be no cheap laughs no matter who is watching; good comedy is hard work and it requires a lot of heavy lifting to make jokes that feel this light.

The cast of Clare Beresford, Dominic Conway and Alex Scott work really hard to provide a warm and inclusive show. It starts as the audience is filing in, settling down and finding somewhere to put the various bags/scarves/hats/mittens that appear to accompany any mass family outing. Beresford and Conway create a soothing and magical atmosphere with the aid of xylophones and various percussion whilst Alex Scott (Sir Peregrine Falcon) makes himself busy teaching us all the brave explorers greeting and bestowing his sandwiches, maps and flags on various small children.

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Charming production that wears its art on its sleeve

Flyer for OrpheusOrpheus – 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.

WP_000121It 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 cast perform and the BAC is transformedThe 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.

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