Modern re-imaginings of Greek myths are a popular storytelling trope – my favourite of recent years being Anais Mitchell’s excellent folk opera Hadestown, which sets the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in a post-apocalyptic depression-era mining town. Riffing on the same myth, in which the poet Orpheus makes a doomed attempt to rescue his love Eurydice from Hades’ Underworld, and similarly promising a “musical re-telling”, my expectations were set pretty high for Little Bulb Theatre’s Orpheus, which was running at Battersea Arts Centre until May 17th. Luckily they were easily met, and then some, in a show-within-show format that playfully recreated a quirky, over-the-top, 1920s Parisian music hall performance of this “most haunting love story ever told”, including a live score of hot club jazz, opera and French chanson.
There was an awful lot that was awesome about this show – particularly that the part of Orpheus (in the 1920s music hall frame) was being played by legendary French guitarist Django Reinhardt, complete with enigmatic smile and suave, far-too-serious flourishes. However, the aspect I enjoyed the most was that by setting the story of Orpheus as a silent movie-style performance carried out by the aforementioned Django, along with the club’s charismatic Edith Piaff-a-like chanteuse as Eurydice and a chorus of very-multi-talented-but-not-quite-professional musicians, a lot of the humour of the show came from it’s beautifully (and tightly) choreographed shambolicness. It was like disaster theatre gone subtle – the performers within the frame were earnest, but ever so slightly incompetent in their dramatic, over-the-top movements, and there were some lovely moments where chorus members comically mistimed a dance step, or found themselves accidentally still on stage moving set when something important was supposed to be happening. It all displayed a great sense of the absurdity of amateur theatre taken a bit too seriously – with an attention to detail that really spoke to me as a veteran of countless Edinburgh Fringe shows… However, despite the tongue-in-cheek styling of the performances, the climax of the story – where Orpheus must ascend to the surface without looking back to ensure Eurydice is still following – was genuinely moving, accompanied as it was by a pounding soundtrack led by Orpheus/Django on his sparkly gold guitar. All in all, a fab show and some interesting lessons to take away as myself and my partner in writing crime prepare to update our four-man show-within-show sci-fi extravaganza for our first convention this Autumn.
Photo by James Allen.