This review first appeared on the Essential Surrey website and is from August 2016.
“Extravaganza Macabre” by Little Bulb Theatre at Battersea Arts Centre, is tremendous fun from start to finish, a knowing comedy from a talented cast that mixes music and melodrama and some great jokes and sight gags.
Devised to initiate BAC’s new open-air Courtyard Theatre, the production makes great use of the limited space, the energetic performers appearing and disappearing from all possible entrances around, above and below the performance area.
The setting is that we in the audience are present for a Victorian theatre company’s performance of the melodrama ‘Extravaganza Macabre’, the tale of lovers Ernest and Elizabeth, separated on their wedding day in tragic circumstances, and how, aided by a clairvoyant maid, a chipper cockney orphan boy (called ‘Chipper’) and his dog (called ‘dogdog’, “because he’s a dog”), they overcome the murderous Lord London to be reunited.
That, of course, is just the pretext for jokes to come flying, for the theatrical ‘fourth wall’ to be not just broken, but pushed over completely, and for the audience to join in the fun; three minutes into the production, most of us were singing along to the chorus, and, by the second half, everyone was cheering the heroes and booing the villain.
But this is no pantomime. The play is intelligently written (by the cast), with the conventions of the genre parodied rather than ridiculed. The three performers – who play all the parts, as well as a variety of musical instruments – throw themselves into their roles, acting, singing, and improvising jokes and asides.
From their first appearance, to the play’s denouement, when dogdog makes a heroic sacrifice and the villain is undone, the cast are warm and engaging, and the production races along hardly pausing for breath. Dominic Conway as both the hero Ernest and Bertha the psychic maid, is funny and energetic (at one point dropping down from a first floor window, at other times playing the mandolin or the tuba), Claire Beresford as Elizabeth the heroine sings beautifully and as the cockney urchin Chipper gets numerous laughs, and Little Bulb’s artistic director Alexander Scott is the wicked Lord London and the narrator – a man who actually looks and sounds as if he is a Victorian theatrical impresario. By the end of the play the villain is defeated, the lovers are married, inheritances are revealed and the audience leave the theatre wreathed in smiles.
Battersea Arts Centre suffered a devastating fire in 2015, the main hall being destroyed but, fortunately, most of the building survived and the restoration works continue. The new Courtyard is part of this development, an open air space within the building that has been converted to a performance area with the audience either sitting on benches on the ground floor level, or standing looking down onto the stage from the first floor gallery.
This is an entertaining production that is well worth the trip. And after the performances on Friday and Saturday nights the fun continues in BAC’s Scratch Bar, with live music hall songs. Totally recommended.