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Review: Orpheus (Brisbane Festival)

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Review: Orpheus (Brisbane Festival)

by Suzannah Conway on September 13, 2017 (September 13, 2017) filed under Musical Theatre & Cabaret | Comment Now
★★★★½ A not-to-be-missed refreshing interpretation of the Orpheus story.

Tivoli Theatre, Brisbane
Septmber 12, 2017

Formed in 2008 and based in the South East of England, Little Bulb Theatre Company creates physical works that are written and devised by the eight-member company. Inspired by Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, this zany but exciting production offers audiences a new twist on the perennial Orpheus theme and is the company’s most ambitious work to date. It was developed collaboratively over two years as a site-specific work for the Battersea Arts Centre and, since opening in 2013, has enjoyed critical success in tours across the UK and at the Salzburg Festival, before its premiere season in Australia at the Brisbane Festival.

Orpheus, Brisbane FestivalOrpheus at the Brisbane Festival. Photo © RULER

In this version, the re-imagining of the celebrated Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice has been transported to the Paris cabaret scene of the 1930s. The cabaret is hosted by songstress, Yvette Pépin (formidably presented by Eugénie Pastor) who, in a bizarre twist to the story, has invited the legendary guitarist Django Reinhardt (a fabulous performance by Dominic Conway) to play the role of Orpheus in a production of the work, in which she also plays his wife, Eurydice. Adding to the mix are the Triplettes de l’Antiquité (Clare Beresford, Miriam Gould and Shamira Turner) who, with quite splendid vocals and harmonies, play various nymphs and furies to great aplomb, along with some delicious animal impersonations in the forest scenes. The two stagehands (Alexander Scott and Tom Penn) almost steal the show as bird impersonators, as well as in the roles of Hades and an extraordinary Persephone, her song a highlight of the evening. Plus, there is the Master of the Keys, pianist and organist Charlie Penn, who holds everything together musically. 

The opening of the piece with its Musical Prologue was intriguing but somewhat difficult to decipher, trying to comprehend who was who in this confusing medley of characters, with some chaotic direction. The play within a play within a play theme is universal but earlier clarification would have helped. As the evening warmed up the performers seemed to relax into their roles while the dialogue and production fused into a more coherent whole. It was really in full swing by the second half, making for some exciting and thrilling music-making in the Musical Interlude as well as first-rate stage performances. The work weaves in and out between the cabaret and the traditional Orpheus story with alacrity, good humour and many tongue-in-cheek nods at more traditional and archaic staging and performance.

Orpheus, Brisbane FestivalOrpheus. Photo © RULER

Each cast member is also a musician and music is the key to this production, with the entire work sung through in operatic style. The only spoken words are those of the host, Yvette Pépin, a nice touch. Everyone else mimes or interprets through sounds and music. The work included many original and excellent compositions by the company alongside a potpourri of classical music including Monteverdi, Saint-Saëns, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, and Debussy’s Clair de Lune. These were complemented with original recordings of French chanson by Edith Piaf and others while Dominic Conway played a number of Django Reinhardt’s guitar pieces – phenomenally well – neatly woven into the melange of music. All in all, this was a wild musical ride; immensely entertaining and very skilful. Company members apparently had to learn instruments from scratch, so their overall performances are even more impressive. It was orchestrated brilliantly and came together astonishingly well, no mean feat.

Orpheus, Brisbane FestivalDominic Conway and Eugénie Pastor. Photo © James Allan

Mary Drummond’s set was a simple series of backcloths behind a traditional proscenium arch stage with red curtain, exactly in cabaret style. The cabaret curtain opened up to show scenes from the play of Orpheus and Eurydice. There was some lovely costuming and the use of masks and puppets by Max Humphries and Cheryl Brown, particularly for the forest scenes with its serpent, rabbits and birds and the descent to Hades with the furies, was particularly effective. Sound and lighting were also polished. The setting was assisted by being staged in the beautiful Tivoli, a theatre modelled on the Paradis Latin in Paris, so there was a real touch of authenticity in this lovely venue.

Orpheus, Brisbane FestivalDominic Conway. Photo © RULER

Alexander Scott’s direction was clever and witty and at times anarchic, but it worked. Given he also played clarinet and was one of the actors, his was a multi-faceted role. The cast had a ball and seemed to enjoy every delicious moment of the play and production.  

All credit to the Brisbane Festival and Artistic Director, David Berthold, for bringing this company and their work to Australia to offer an entertaining and refreshingly different look at an old theme. The amazingly talented and skilful group of actor/performer/musicians were a joy to watch, so enthusiastic and committed to their art. It was a roller coaster ride of an evening of pure fun, excitement and entertainment that is exactly the fare of festivals. It is playing till Saturday 16 September at the Tivoli Theatre and is well worth catching.           

Little Bulb Theatre and Battersea Arts Centre's Orpheus is at the Tivoli Theatre, Brisbane, until September 16 as part of the Brisbane Festival.