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Theatre review: Orpheus, Battersea Arts Centre, London


Battersea Arts Centre has a fine track record for picking out fresh talents, nurturing them and then letting them bloom in the nooks and crannies of its magnificent building. Jerry Springer the Opera started life at a scratch night here. And in 2007, a young company called Punchdrunk famously filled the place with their Masque of the Red Death.

BAC’s latest protégés are Little Bulb, an 8-man musical/ theatrical collective, who first performed here with their graduation show, Crocosmia, in 2008. The entire back half of the building is now given over to their barmy bouillabaisse of a show, a Parisian retelling of the Orpheus myth with a pinch of Monteverdi, a dash of The Artist’s silent charm and lashings of gypsy jazz.

The immersion begins in the bar, which is decked out with brasserie adverts and gramophones and serving Absinthe cocktails and baked camembert. Inside, the Great Hall has been transformed into a louche 1930s nightspot with red velvet drapes and cabaret seating. Instead of an interval, there is an extended jazz set. It feels exciting, like a happening.

Orpheus is Little Bulb’s most ambitious show to date. Its concept is sprawling to the point of confusion, but at base it is a classic play-within-a-play. The talented troupe plays a group of 1930s French musicians who are performing Orpheus. The legendary jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt (played by a dextrous if slightly uncharismatic Dominic Conway) takes the role of the tragic hero. His lover Eurydice is played by our ‘ostess Yvette (Eugenie Pastor), a Piaf-style chanteuse with permanently surprised eyebrows and vowels straight out of Allo Allo.

As they play out their doomed romance in guitar song and mime, three furiously multi-tasking chorus girls play pretty much everything else, from woodland creatures to the Three Furies. Scene by scene they switch from doo-wop to opera, playing accordion, fiddle and double bass, dancing and even operating a giant snake puppet. Elsewhere there is a percussionist, a woodwind player and a pianist who, in a thrilling moment as Orpheus descends to the underworld, takes to the Hall’s newly restored Victorian pipe organ.

The tone is larky – think Bottom and his Rude Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – with slapstick nods to the opera, theatre and ballet versions of Orpheus that have come before. Snatches of Faure, Saint-Saens and Piaf pop up between original songs. It takes some getting used to and sometimes you wish the mugging would stop. When it does, as in the bewitching song of Persephone, performed by counter tenor Tom Penn, it’s quite stunning.

For the rest of the time, the dizzying talents of the troupe carry you along. There are many ideas fizzing around here – too many, perhaps but certainly enough to showcase Little Bulb’s sparky originality. That magical BAC buzz is back, once again.

To 11 May (020 7223 2223; www.bac.org.uk)