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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Orpheus
Battersea Arts Centre Spring 2013

The Battersea Arts Centre's beautiful architecture, along with its air of slightly faded glamour, is perfect for period pieces like Little Bulb's 1930s jazz-themed retelling of the Orpheus legend.

The leap of imagination required is an odd but relatively simple one: that famed jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, a gifted virtuoso who forged an incredible career even after a fire lost him the use of two fingers, had been better at following through on his grand ideas.

Having accepted this, one is able to settle down comfortably in the BAC's beautiful Grand Hall and enjoy the spectacle that Little Bulb have created.

A theatre company by trade, their Orpheus has more of opera than theatre about it, with no spoken English beyond the jazz club framing device. The club, we are told, is staging Orpheus with Reinhardt in the lead, and fictional singer Yvette Pepin, our compere, taking the role of Eurydice.

There's jazz in the very pores of the piece – even the Greek chorus are a female three-part harmony trio – and most of the music is exquisitely rendered, despite the fact that the performers do not come from a classically trained musical background. The company have just spent a year gigging across the country in order to feel like a real band, and it certainly pays off.

In spite of their skill, though, the first half is extremely plot-light and as a piece of theatre it feels thin indeed. There is lots of deliberately poor dancing – a joke that, though funny, begins quickly to wear thin.

Luckily, the high-concept mix of silent cinema and jazz opera is entertaining enough to carry the whole thing through, into the extended interlude of Chanson and Hot Jazz that follows the interval. This is where the show really starts to come alive.

In the first half, one feels that the Orpheus element is actually constraining them, but allowed at last to really enjoy the period and the music, the company cement one’s suspicions that they are both excellently entertaining and supremely talented.

Perhaps the slightly shaky first half was just a necessary period of adjustment to the bizarre world of Little Bulb; either way, the second half is so much more engaging as to feel like a completely different show.

The quest element of Orpheus’s descent into the underworld to retrieve Eurydice gives the whole thing a thrust that is lacking in the first half, with the gothic land-of-the-dead setting allowing them to make great use of the remarkable organ built into the stage itself.

Just when you think it cannot get better, Tom Penn’s falsetto and harp solo as Persephone brings the whole room to a reverent silence, and suddenly the Orpheus setting feels far from just a device.

By the closing scenes, this Orpheus has become a supremely moving rendering of the classic tale, and as the band get ever slicker with the show’s progression, the humour gives way to something that is haunting, genuinely original and not to be missed.

Lauren Mooney

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Review -  Orpheus - Battersea Arts Centre 2013 

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