Pros: Clever writing, inventive staging and many laughs per minute.
Cons: If BAC have a ‘Safe and Jolly’ strand of work, then this fits right in
On a warm, dry summer evening I spent two pretty perfect hours in the courtyard theatre at Battersea Arts Centre. Extravaganza Macabre, Little Bulb Theatre’s take on the Victorian melodrama, is inventive, affectionate and tremendously funny. Not difficult, one might think, to send up Victorian melodrama, but just because a thing’s easy, doesn’t mean it’s always done well. Little Bulb do it very well indeed.
No need to spend too long on the plot, which involves a hero, a heroine, a villain, a theatrical impresario and a couple of sidekicks. There is love and peril, heroism and supernatural intervention. Good conquers evil and loyalty is rewarded. Most of the parts are played by three actor-musicians, with help from an array of outsized moustaches, beards and pearls. There is also, for this is something of a summer panto, involvement from the audience; en masse as the Thames, individually as father of the bride and rat operator. Indeed much of the show’s comedy arises from this good-natured interaction with the audience and the performers’ ability to ad lib for maximum absurdity.
Another rich seam of humour comes from the writers’ evident relish for language. The long-winded priest is keen to assure us that he will neither dilly nor dally, not shilly or shally, and when the villain enters to find an audience member crawling along the stage to aid an escape, his remark, ‘what an incriminating tableau’, is exquisitely apt.
The whole creation is knowing without ever being sneery. As the hero and villain exchange blows, their running commentary sends up the conventions of screen fighting. There are shades of silent movie in the housemaid dangling from the window, and a touch of Airplane in Clare Beresford’s graphic miming of the horrors we can expect from Act Two. This is very affectionate parody and the ending, which ties off all loose ends very neatly and links to the history of the old town hall, is extremely satisfying.
The courtyard theatre, which opened last year, is cosy, atmospheric and surprisingly comfortable. Extravaganza Macabre, which was created for the space, makes use of every quirky corner and involves the audience on the ground floor and balcony (there is no safe place!).
Sometimes Battersea Arts Centre feels like the annoyingly perfect kid who can do no wrong. This show is in that same mould; two hours of smart, funny, talented, energetic and good-humoured. There’s very little left once you exit the courtyard – no thorny issues to mull over on the way home – but while it lasts, it is a perfect little package of escapist fun.
Written and Directed By: Little Bulb Theatre
Box Office: 020 7223 2223
Booking Link: https://www.bac.org.uk/
Booking Until: 29 July 2017