Reviewed: Orpheus and Forest Fringe

Limitation so often breeds invention, except in this case, when it doesn't.

Orpheus.
Orpheus at the Battersea Arts Centre. Photo: littlebulbtheatre.com

Orpheus; Forest Fringe
Battersea Arts Centre, London SW11;
Gate Theatre, London W11

Jean “Django” Reinhardt, the virtuosic, Belgian- born jazz guitarist, lost the use of two fingers on his left hand when his caravan caught fire. Doctors believed he’d never play again but the 18-year-old retrained and, using only two fingers for solos, developed a unique technique that revolutionised guitar-playing. Limitation so often breeds invention.

The touring company Little Bulb Theatre has always held that principle dear. Its work is homespun, ramshackle and delicately whimsical but it has more pluck than Reinhardt’s left hand. What sort of emerging company, a year out of university, throws together “an epic folk opera” in a fortnight? Or teaches itself new musical instruments from scratch to tour a village fete around rural England? It has always fostered a gleeful, untutored amateurism that is utterly infectious.

For its retelling of the Orpheus myth, Little Bulb has taken over the Grand Hall at the Battersea Arts Centre. The problem is, without its former limitations, it ends up trying to fake its ragbag appeal. To do so, it uses the old play-within-a-play trick; the one that Shakespeare pops on to the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We’re in 1930s Paris, in a music hall, and Reinhardt is starring as the eponymous muso-poet alongside Yvette Pépin – a Piaf-style proprietress – as his lost love Eurydice.

Cue an overdose of overacting. Dominic Conway’s Reinhardt smoulders and postures as the romantic lead. Eugenie Pastor’s Pépin, so desperate to please her audience, plants her feet, waves her arms and faces front, a nervous smile fixed on her face. All the knowingly naive stage devices are there, as well: painted scenic backdrops, scene-stealing choruses and clumsy puppetry. It’s pretty much Peter Quince’s Pyramus and Thisbe but that comic coda here lasts the entire evening and it runs out of steam.

The whole thing feels contrived. The backdrops are carefully designed to look elegantly shoddy. Every awkward exit that gets tangled in the velvet curtain clearly sets off with the intention of entangling itself. In short, the clowning just doesn’t cut it.

Little Bulb wants to send theatre up and uphold its beauty at the same time. Occasionally, the latter breaks through, often musically. There’s a glorious aria from Tom Penn, sung in a spine-tingling falsetto, which retells the Persephone myth; a blast on the room’s vast, inbuilt organ; and a lot of awesome, tub-thumping gypsy jazz. Conway’s solos are particularly astounding. He sits front-curtain and stares at his audience like a cobra hypnotising its prey.

Orpheus is undone by his gaze: the look back that condemns Eurydice to death. However, that aside, there seems no real reason to frame the myth in this way. It’s not clear why Reinhardt is an Orphic figure and his presence does little to illuminate Orpheus. Rather, the decision justifies the musical style in much the same way as Shakespeare gets plonked in arbitrary time-space settings.

If Little Bulb fakes failure, Glen Neath and Ant Hampton have woven it deep into the fabric of Romcom, which headlines the first week of the Forest Fringe residency at the Gate. Two completely unrehearsed performers stand onstage, obeying instructions fed to them through headphones. Sometimes, their lines race ahead of them or they’re given the wrong words. At other times, the instructions aim to humiliate, demanding nosepicking, bum-scratching and long stretches of dancing in silence.

They’re acting out a distorted romance. Boy meets girl. A string of awkward dates breeds love. The relationship disintegrates. In this, form meets content. It catches the fluster of early courtship and the self-absorption that unravels relationships. “We’re incompatible,” she says to him. Yet they relax into it and into each other. After all, romance – and romcoms, in particular – follows a set script.

But Romcom also shows its age. First seen in 2003, it doesn’t go far enough with its chal lenges. It flirts with danger where later audio-instruction work has thrown performers and, subsequently, audience members in at the deep end. Then there’s the wilful obscurity of the text. Experimental theatre has got a lot better at communicating in the past decade. It has recognised the benefits of neatness.

Part of the pleasure lies in revisiting the piece with different performers. Neil Callaghan, in a too-small Brazil shirt, seems borderline autistic, while Christopher Brett Bailey, in an oversized Arsenal top, is sardonic, petulant and immature. Opposite Callaghan, Karen Christopher seems younger than her years; Ira Brand, older than hers. Casting comes to seem like a form of matchmaking. In the second half, these performers show their own work. It’s unfair to criticise works-inprogress but Callaghan’s deserves a special mention. A Certain Shaft of Light, a movement piece hymning the North Star, has a rare, hold-your-breath, world-stopping beauty.

He recalls Bernard Moitessier, the French yachtsman, who, seven months into a roundthe- world race, deliberately veered off-course and just kept going. His was not the fastest solo voyage but the longest. In front of a makeshift constellation, the Big Dipper in tea lights, pointing up to a candlelit North Star, Callaghan goes through a series of exhausting, exertive movements. He flings his arms and slaps his back. He scuffles backwards. Other performers would show how hard they’re working. Callaghan just carries on, neither failing nor succeeding, and it’s all the more moving and profound for that.

“Orpheus” runs until 11 May “Forest Fringe” runs until 4 May