Orpheus (Bristol Old Vic) ***

Orpheus Little Bulb photo John Hunter

Originally published on Reviews Hub

Well, Orpheus does eventually make it onto the historic Bristol Old Vic stage. A few months after ENO’s co-production of Orfeo found itself pulled by the financially struggling opera company, we finally get the opportunity to see the myth on stage and with some of Monteverdi’s compositions to boot. It’s the musical highlights that stand out most prominently in Little Bulb’s Orpheus, an idea surely hatched in late night boozing sessions, transposing the myth of Orpheus, who travelled to Hades to rescue his dead wife Eurydice, into jazzy 1930s Paris with guitar maestro Django Reinhardt becoming the “singing poet” at its centre.

It’s a great premise, that in its original run in 2013 played in a cabaret layout in the sadly destroyed great hall at Battersea Arts Centre. Its move on its first UK tour to the proscenium of the BOV does it no favours. It’s a great truism that the space dictates the form we expect to see. Sitting around tables, champagne flutes in hand, it is easier to be transported to a world of chanteuse singers, handsome moustached musicians and lengthy jazz interludes. However sharply enjoyable it is, and however much musical virtuosity is displayed by the multi-talented Little Bulb ensemble, plonked onto a traditional proscenium arch the flaws in the work are more sharply exposed. Its pacing is unfortunately all over the place, rushing through some of the key narrative points and then presiding over others in a leisurely fashion. With a thirty-five minute first half, followed by an interval and then a twenty minute pause for a musical jam, it’s some forty minutes before we return to the story, brains whirling to try to remember what has gone before. It leads to a night that never builds to a conclusive whole but, rather like a cabaret evening, provides a number of great set pieces instead.

Let’s not lingers on the negatives though and proceed swift-footedly to the positives, sure to win over fans old and new alike. Little Bulb is one of the most exciting new(ish) companies around and their Orpheus is a stylish romp. Played out in the style of silent film, its early scenes of forest romance and terror put me in mind of Max Reinhardt’s still magical 1935 film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In fact the Hot Club Jazz ensemble (also playing gendarmes, priests and furies among others) put one in mind of that play’s Rude Mechanicals, bumbling onto the stage with hearts of gold and kooky smiles that suggest they are happy to be playing for us.

There are some lovely moments of puppetry and each performer is a wonderfully engaging presence. Dominic Conway is all benign smiles as Reinhardt, so confident that his musical talents will win him the hearts of all, Eugenie Pastor is a big-voiced Edith Piaf-esque hostess who also takes on the role of the doomed lover and percussionist Tom Penn steals the show with his counter-tenor. It’s the music that will stay with you when you leave, ranging from the aforementioned Monteverdi, Debussy, Bach and Brahms to the company’s own compositions, with the biggest compliment being that these tunes more than stand up to their illustrious forebears. There’s lots to like here, it’s just the environment of a cabaret club would suit it more than the stricter structure of the traditional theatrical stage.

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