Review: Orpheus @ Battersea Arts Centre


Orpheus is at Battersea Arts Centre until May 17.

By Naomi Agius

Unashamedly absurd, delightfully charming, boundlessly whimsical yet remarkably poignant, Little Bulb Theatre’s Parisian retelling of the Greek Orpheus myth is a rare treat.

Ushered into the Grand Hall at the back of Battersea Arts Centre, which has been transformed into a decadent Parisian-style music hall cloaked in red velvet, with guests seated at cabaret tables, I immediately find myself whisked away to a bygone era, both miles, and years, away from a dull and uninspiring London evening .

The irresistible Gallic charm permeates through and it is hard at times to not forget that this isn’t 1930s France, la belle époque, but a theatre in Battersea.

The enigmatic chanteuse, and host of the evening, Yvette Pépin (Eugénie Pastor), does nothing to dispel this feeling as she makes her grand début, her Edith Piaf-esque eyebrows nudging their way through the red curtain to get to centre stage.

Little Bulb’s take on the classic play-within- a-play, is a boisterous one. The premise is that Madame Pépin and her troupe are a group of 1930s French musicians performing Orpheus, and have persuaded the legendary, and somewhat elusive gypsy guitarist, Django Reinhardt (Dominic Conway), to play the role of the tragic hero himself.

Unwaveringly self-assured, Reinhardt never says a word, smug in his musical expertise, his slight and elfin-like stature adding to his mysterious allure. His calm, serene manner is perfectly paired with the exaggerated and erratic Pépin and his character’s simplicity is welcomed when at times the play’s complexities and intricacies reach dizzying heights.

Though at times chaotic, it is hard, however, not to marvel at the ensemble’s dexterity. The three chorus girls doggedly prance round as woodland creatures, play the accordion, fiddle and double bass and, at one point, even operate a giant snake puppet.

There is a percussionist, a woodwind player and the moment when  Orpheus descends into the underworld and the pianist, Charlie Penn, steps up to the Grand Piano, to give a rendition of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, is electric. The excitement palpable, a ripple of faint applause breaks out, as though the crowd can no longer contain itself.

Musically, the diversity is vast, featuring that of Brahms, Debussy, Monteverdi and Piaf, interspersed with the company’s own original compositions.  The three acts are preceded and followed by a prologue and epilogue, with a subsequent extended musical interlude in which the troupe step out of character to perform jazz and French chanson.

This is when things really get going, the music lively and uninhibited, yet unpretentious, despite the company’s impressive musicianship. The surprising image of a Madame Pépin at the table next to me, appreciatively tapping her feet in time to the music, is certainly one that will stay with me and was a highlight of the evening. At one point she drags a male spectator to his feet to dance with her. He is powerless to resist her perpetual enthusiasm and charm and before long, he too has swiftly succumbed to the revelry.

The pièce de résistance of the evening, however, comes when percussionist, Tom Penn, delivers a heartbreakingly captivating solo as Persephone, that draws a collective gasp from the audience. In his bright and clear voice, it is hauntingly beguiling and contributes a welcome touch of tenderness to the evening, that may otherwise have been lost amidst the merriment.

For those who wish to descend deeper into the realms of imagination, Little Bulb Theatre’s warm-hearted musical re-imagining of Orpheus is not to be missed.

At BAC until May 17. Tickets: 020 7223 2223;

Photos courtesy of John Hunt for RULER and James Allan, with thanks.

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