Little Bulb

Credit James Allan_5_Miriam Gould_Shamira Turner_Clare Beresford

Originally written for The Stage.

Novelty has become something of a raison d’être for Little Bulb. Since forming at the University of Kent and making their name with Crocosmia, a sweetly ingenious tale of three orphaned siblings, the theatre company have pursued fresh challenges for each successive production. Be it mounting a gypsy jazz opera from scratch in Orpheus or learning to dance for Squally Showers, they are always seeking new skills.

“Each show should be different,” insists director Alex Scott, “either thematically or stylistically.” Their quest for new challenges has led them down unexpected avenues, hopping from intimate character pieces to physical work to musical epics. Scott suggests that while some companies are happy to hone their expertise in one genre, Little Bulb’s members “tend to be a bit flighty”. As founder member Clare Beresford adds, “why should you shut something down just because you’ve become accidentally known for one thing?”

Discovery is embedded in the company’s way of working. “Normally we start with a name,” explains Scott, “and then part of our process is to work out why the show’s got that name and what the plot is. We like having processes where you will find out as the process is developing what’s happening to the characters.”

If any connecting strand has emerged throughout their work, it is music. But even this, it transpires, was something of an accident. While all the founder members were passionate about music, it was only through working together over time that this became a vital ingredient of their productions. “It’s just grown and grown through something almost irresistible,” says company member Dominic Conway, whose instrument of choice is the guitar. “There was never a grand plan and early on music wasn’t really in our mission statement.”

Crocosmia, which was first created as Scott’s end of year project at university before making waves at the Edinburgh Fringe, used a record player as a central prop in the narrative. From there, the company began incorporating live music into their shows, first in sprawling folk opera Sporadical and then in Operation Greenfield, which explored the awkwardness of adolescence through the story of a Christian folk band.

“Music is very powerful,” says Scott. “It’s a way of accessing emotion and portraying emotion in a way that sometimes naturalism struggles to.” In more recent work, this investigation of music as a theatrical tool has been taken even further. Since 2011, the company has taken their music into new territory by performing as a band under the name Goose Party, while Orpheus demanded them to master a completely new genre: gypsy jazz.

The show was born from a “really open” commission from David Jubb at Battersea Arts Centre. “His brief was ‘we’d like you to create a show on a bigger canvas’ and it literally could have been anything,” Scott recalls. Little Bulb hit on the mythical narrative of Orpheus and Eurydice, which they paired with legendary jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt to craft an intricate show within a show. The company recruited additional members, learned new instruments and upgraded to the imposing space of BAC’s Grand Hall.

The show, which is being revived for a second run this spring, offered an opportunity for the company to stretch their ambition beyond the intimate work that had gained them their reputation. They explain that the support of BAC was essential in this jump from small-scale to mid-scale. “Sometimes you do something that you would never do because somebody else has trust in you,” says Beresford. “If somebody has faith in you taking the risk, there’s something very freeing about that. It adds extra pressure, because you don’t want to let people down, but it also gives you the impetus to do something.”

Little Bulb admit that they have been lucky to have this kind of support throughout their career so far, both from BAC and from their producers Farnham Maltings, who “actively support our sort of contrary genre-shifting”. Perhaps their greatest genre shift to date was the one they embarked upon for last year’s Edinburgh Fringe show Squally Showers, which saw them ditch the instruments and put on their dancing shoes.

“We wanted to do something completely without live music,” says Scott, acknowledging the abrupt departure from the style that had won them a faithful following. “Although we never like to disappoint an audience, we just thought this is a challenge that we need to do for ourselves. We wanted to do something that was accessing a physical language rather than a musical language and see where that would take us.”

The resulting show uses dance, movement and a series of long, wordless montage sequences to tell the madcap story of a television news studio in the 1980s, mixing politics and pirouettes. Scott admits that “some audiences were completely confused by it”, but stands by the show as an important creative exploration for the company. Scott intends to take elements of what they have learned forward into future projects, adding, “I don’t think we’d be intimidated by a dance sequence in a show now”.

What has endured through all of Little Bulb’s shows, albeit in varying ways, is their fascination with character. Scott is interested in placing the company’s carefully drawn characters in a world “where it is naturalistic but also anything else is possible, so you’ve got all that potential for dreams and metaphor and all of those things, but they feel like real people”. Beresford agrees: “I find it really freeing that you can use something so solid but in a structure that’s so free”.

In developing the compelling character dynamics that drive their narratives, it helps that Little Bulb are extraordinarily close-knit as an ensemble. The group all live together while making their work, an arrangement which, as Conway explains, allows the creative process to be as flexible as possible. “Sometimes you really crack an element of the show lying in bed at night having a bit of a chat, or you hit upon a really good idea over breakfast,” he says. “It’s great if you can just turn up at 10, do the work, have a lunch break and come back, but in practice you never know when the good ideas are going to come.”

“We like working as a group of friends,” Scott adds. “Even if you’re just chatting and becoming closer as people, then that shows on stage that the ensemble is very close.” But this practice of spending every minute of the day together does also have its drawbacks. “On the flipside, it’s hard to turn off, which has its own dangers as well,” Beresford warns. “Where does work end and life begin?”

For now, work and life are once again blurring, as the company’s hobby of playing gigs as a band is about to become even more central to their work. Little Bulb are just starting work on their first album, rekindling some of the ambitions that inspired Goose Party. “We’re just doing it for the love of experimentation and to see what comes out of it,” says Conway, while Scott laughs, “it may not reach the higher end of the charts”. If nothing else, it’s a new challenge.

Photo: James Allan. 

Orpheus, Battersea Arts Centre


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.