South Kensington is usually the centre of French life in the English capital, but until 17th May the Battersea Arts Centre can claim to be just as Gallicly important. Orpheus, by the Little Bulb Theatre company converts the grand hall of the BAC into a Thirties Parisian nightclub, or at least a 21st century approximation. It does lack thick Gitanes smoke or waiters bringing out glasses of absinthe, but the atmosphere is well-achieved – although one oddity is a metal chain used to divide two of the seating areas which when occasionally glimpsed does take away some of the Montmartre ambience.
Dominic Conway as Orpheus and Eugenie Pastor as Eurydice by John Hunter for RULER
Guitarist Django Reinhardt, played by Dominic Conway and singer Yvette Pepin (Eugenie Pastor) are hosts for the evening, which combines a production of Orpheus within the musical performance of a cabaret act. They also play Orpheus and Eurydice, and they and the rest of the cast playfully bounce between their instruments and the stage whilst performing songs such as Padam, Padam, Minor Swing and Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. It’s an eclectic evening that focuses on the basic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice and their trip to the underworld, where a three-headed Cerberus is just one of the enthusiastically bonkers creations of the company. The cast is multitalented. One moment they might be playing their instruments, the next hopping around the stage impersonating animals in a way I haven’t seen since my niece bent down on all fours and announced she was a rabbit.
The whimsical masks and puppets by Max Humphries are a highlight, as is the straight-faced presentation of the absurd costumes that the cast manage to pull off.
Little Bulb Theatre Orpheus by John Hunter for RULER
This is a production that doesn’t take itself seriously and is all the better for that. Delicate birds fly across the stage, in the hands of well-built gents in high waisted black trews and braces. Yvette speaks in an over-egged French accent that is not designed to improve international relations. Mostly it is knowingly amusing, although sometimes the self-parody goes too far. Most songs ended with the performer beckoning for applause, which the audience freely gave, along with whoops of encouragement.
The scene changes are well incorporated, with no dark interludes whilst stage hands silently do their business. In fact the changes are celebrated, the new backdrops lowered by the actors on the stage. It is refreshingly lo-fi and honest, as is the delightfully simple dog who makes his way on stage during one of the Parisian scenes.
Orpheus’ lyre has been replaced by a golden guitar on which Conway plays superbly. Django’s music is a good choice, if any music could get the trees tapping their roots then this is the stuff. The programme reminds that Reinhardt played with two paralysed fingers and the racing music really makes you wonder how he managed. With Miriam Gould’s dancing violin and Tom Penn’s extravagant drumming the hot club jazz, opera and French chanson all roll past in this enthusiastic and slightly madcap show. Charlie Penn plays a piano accompaniment throughout, apart from when he walks purposefully to the centre of the stage for a turn on the BAC’s own original organ.
If you arrive early you can eat French inspired meals before the production and you can sip drinks all the way through. During the interval whole baked Camemberts are on offer. The interval is followed by a musical interlude when Pastor encourages the audience to chat and drink, and the atmosphere really becomes enjoyably Parisian.
It is a long production given the simplicity of the story, which is recapped at the start of the show and in the programme. Told in the extravagant gestures of silent movies the cast swap between playing instruments, singing and taking part in the mime show happening on stage. Projected titles explain what is going on, furthering the sense of watching a silent movie come to life. Eugenie keeps the whole thing swinging along, sitting amongst the audience during some of the songs and improvising a dance – at least on the evening I visited – with a very game fellow.
After the stint at the BAC – who are also co-producers – the production will head to the Salzburg festival where Alex Scott, Little Bulb’s artistic director, has been nominated for the Young Director’s Award. Orpheus is part of the BAC’s Gods, Myths and Legends season. The myth of Orpheus might not be the lightest of tales, but in the hands of Little Bulb it makes a memorable evening.