The Soho Theatre is on my list of comfortingly reliable venues. ‘Comfortingly reliable’ is of course the least likely description you’d pull out for most of the things they show there: quirky, edgy, funny – they do these things unerringly well. I have never less-than-loved anything I’ve seen there, which I can’t say about anywhere else, and a good ‘play with songs’ always gets my attention. But I had the publicity poster for Little Bulb’s ‘Operation Greenfield’ open in my browser for a week before finally closing it down with a sigh. It looked just too whimsical, to the point of being twee. And then the universe (i.e. the other C saying “what shall we do this evening, then?”) conspired to get us there anyway. Maybe a memory of similarly twee publicity for the likes of Napoleon Dynamite made me suggest we give it a try after all.
I’m really very glad we did, and before wasting too much time let me just say: go and see it. Anyone who enjoys both unexpected laughter and live music will like a bit of Little Bulb in their lives, and I’m pretty sure that includes all of you. (Operation Greenfield is on at The Soho Theatre till Friday 4 June – see below for other details.)
Now, back to the show. If I were to explain the plot, it’s fair to say that this would not guarantee your attention. It involves a band made up of four Christian teenagers working their way towards the local talent contest, via various small personal dramas and revelations. What is special is their sympathetic eye for joyous absurdities in life, their keen ear for the inner voices of confused egos, and the extraordinary way they put all of this on display for the audience.
They do it partly through a strong sense of comic physicality. Like Ron Heder, star of Napoleon Dynamite, they are not in fact dreadful looking kids. But like Heder, they know how to cartoon themselves sharply and with only minimal movements. A slight chin jut here, an eye roll there, a sucked in bottom lip. Added to this, the whole show is energetically choreographed. Every walk across the stage, every lifting of a chair is done with an eye to the visual pattern they’re creating and to the colour scheme of their costumes. They have some inherently silly props that made me giggle every time I looked at them. The effect is slightly hypnotic – it’s hard to look away as there is always something interesting to stare at.
They are also exceptionally talented musicians, and they use music to weave the narrative together. Drums, flute, bass guitar, banjo, acoustic guitar, accordion and glockenspiel all make an appearance, as do French early music and Ziggy Stardust. (Their band mutates from parodying funk to folk to prog rock as the show progresses – no coincidence that they are probably top 3 in your least liked musical genres.) But they also use a good deal of recorded music – a mixing desk sits to the side of the stage and each actor takes turns meddling with the soundtrack. They use the background wash of sound to set the tone of each scene, punctuated by the occasional startling live performance.
With all of that going on, major character evolution is not really the point of the play, though there is a sprinkling of ‘coming of age’ realisations particularly for one of the four teenagers. Her virtuoso solo scene is guaranteed to stick in your mind, as she plays both her main character of an under-confident West Country teenage geek and, suddenly, Elvis Presley in mentoring mode. She takes no apparent breaths as they carry on a fluent conversation with each other in their native accents, and does it all whilst standing on top of a ladder and bellowing into a microphone.
Through all this structured craziness, they still have an ability to touch the audience emotionally, to generate moments of pathos. It’s an impressive juggling act. Deliberately or not, they lay the foundations for this early in the evening. At the start of the show, the four of them sit silently on stage gazing slightly soulfully at the audience, and I had thought it was simply a smart device to ensure that they only start performing when the audience naturally settles to a state of readiness. But I think it’s also a chance for them to settle themselves and connect with the audience. When I spoke to one of the cast afterwards, she knew exactly where I’d been sitting (and no, I wasn’t wearing an identifiably bizarre ballgown or pretzel hat).
Operation Greenfield was a raving success at last year’s Edinburgh fringe festival, winning a number of awards for the Little Bulb company that stages it. At this summer’s Festival they are not performing as a theatre group but are going up as a band to provide music at the BAC at Summerhall venue in the last week of the festival. So if you want to see them, you have the following options:
1. Get yourself along to the Soho Theatre before 4 June.
2. Lovingly heckle them into an impromptu performance this August at the Edinburgh Festival.
3. Stalk them on their national tour, including the Pulse and Greenbelt festivals in the summer and various towns in the autumn.
4. Welcome them back to London in the dark days of November: at The Albany on 18 Nov, Jackson’s Lane on 23-24 Nov, Arts Depot on 25 Nov.
5. Look out for whatever Little Bulb do next (including Alexander Scott, Clare Beresford, Shamira Turner). They’ve previously put on Crocosmia and Sporadical; they’ve been at Battersea Arts Centre and Shunt Vaults. Definitely worth watching.