Little Bulb’s latest show, opening a season that will go on to celebrate the theatre’s prized Scratch format, is Battersea Arts Centre through and through. A product of Scratch itself, Orpheus was conceived following an approach from the theatre asking the company to create a piece in response to the building; a beautiful, sprawling, shabbily grand space, with as much rickety charm as Little Bulb themselves. Sharply propelling themselves from the small, delicately observed pieces they’ve crafted in the past, the company have chosen for inspiration not just the imposing Grand Hall, but also its vast organ, partially restored in time for this production. Rather than treating the room as a challenge, an obstacle to navigate, it embraces it.
Alongside the stunning space in which it is staged, the other key inspiration at the heart of this madly ambitious gypsy jazz opera is the music. The fusing of the Orpheus myth with the music of Django Reinhardt, while working extraordinarily well, gives the impression of resulting from the company’s giddy love of these songs rather than from any natural link between the two. Music has always been at the heart of Little Bulb’s work, and here they stage a passionate love song to the art form. The concept at the centre of this musical celebration is a story within a story: the tale of Orpheus’ descent into the underworld to reclaim his lover Eurydice mounted as a lavish entertainment in a 1930s Parisian music hall, with Reinhardt in the title role of the tragic poet.
Little Bulb’s multi-talented – and in many cases multi-instrument playing – performers find plenty to play with in this set-up. For all the epic, operatic glamour, the company still hold tight to elements of their homemade aesthetic, at their best when cheekily undermining their own creations and poking fun at the genres they simultaneously invoke. In a style that seems somehow spontaneous and precise all at once, the company use the meticulously observed conventions of the silent movie to wordlessly convey the narrative, engaging with and occasionally subverting the gestural and musical basics of how we share stories. There are sequences that threaten to become over-long and self-indulgent, but these are always rescued by a timely interjection of sheer charm – an archly clowning expression, a piece of dazzling invention, a gorgeously silly item of costume.
Extending this playful care and precision, the beautiful space of the Grand Hall and its adjoining bar space are used just as thoughtfully as the content. Cabaret tables cluster around the stage and spill over into the room next door, wrapping audience members in another era as Eugenie Pastor’s glorious, wine-swigging hostess weaves between chairs. The whole evening is crafted as an end-to-end experience, a joyous tumble head-first into the world of the jazz club and the music hall. I for one would happily install wine and cheese as a regular feature of the interval, even if there is something a tad cynical about bringing the bar right into the performance space (well, if Shunt can do it …)
The downside of thinking so big, however, is that it has stripped away some of the miniaturist ingenuity of the company’s smaller work. The ramshackle charm of shows like Operation Greenfield has been sacrificed in favour of something slicker but at times less compelling. The emotion, too, suffers slightly on this larger scale. If Operation Greenfield unabashedly wore its heart on its sleeve, Orpheus wears its bright red, centre stage and decked in fairy lights. This is a story about love, and God forbid we should forget it.
But as ever with Little Bulb, objections begin to feel churlish and after a time resistance is futile. Amidst the epic ambition, there are still some gorgeous little gems: in one hilarious scene the performers don cardboard noses and hooves, instantly transforming into a mad menagerie of gambolling animals; in another, a merry-go-round of appearances and disappearances conjures a vivid picture-book of Paris, sending up its clichés as it goes. And the music, honed through night after night performing together as a jazz band, holds the piece and its audience together, all singing to the same infectious tune. Once Little Bulb’s playing has you in its toe-tapping grasp, it’s increasingly hard to break free.