Everything about Little Bulb Theatre’s Operation Greenfield suggests a company comfortable with its brand and happy to forge its own, crazy paved, path. Enter Soho Theatre and a massive Elvis Presley cut-out will greet you at the box office. Settle into your seat and you’ll find the cast already on stage, testing their instruments and staring out with their uniformly bulbous eyes. Sit back and enjoy the home-spun music, eclectic little montages and a poignant merging of the real and imaginary. And, when you leave, make sure you say goodbye to Elvis at the door.
Watching Operation Greenfield is a bit like gazing at the sky and seeing sprawling, rich stories emerge from wispy, floating clouds. This is partly down to the endearingly innocent characters Little Bulb use in their shows – in this case, a group of young, religious teenagers preparing for a talent competition. But this dreamy, hopeful sensation is also down to the type of theatre Little Bulb create, which is all about the power of the imagination and finding the sublime in the ‘small’ stuff in life.
Little Bulb have cannily identified a set of characters, a young band, who love to create but have limited resources – much like the company themselves. This lends a rough finish to the games these teenagers play and the music and theatre they create. They are also on the edge of adulthood and provide the kind of skewed perspective on life which allows for overblown but moving incidents, vibrantly exaggerated images and hastily coloured-in characters. This quirky pop group, their songs and their story, perfectly complement Little Bulb’s exuberant theatrical style; slapdash but rigorous, earnest but enchanting, kooky but familiar, too.
This might be a simple story but the storytelling is sophisticated and unusual. Summers disappear and friendships are forged in chaotic but fluid montages: the careful rearrangement of chairs, a few choice chords and some speedy costume changes gleefully sketch out the passing of time. Seemingly minor moments – a Sunday Church service – are randomly bathed in colour, as the Bible comes alive in the impressionable congregation’s head. Everything feels deeply personal, tinged by a particular character’s emotional state.
Director Alexander Scott keeps this imaginative whirlwind in order, whilst also allowing strange fantastical thunderbolts to shake things up. He also injects the show with a quiet innocence without making it overly sentimental. Whenever the gang convene, they guzzle down squash. It’s like nectar to these young rockers. When they play their music, it is with utter conviction and joy. And, when they speak, their words might be simple but they have such a clang of authenticity.
The actors try a little too hard; the endless eye goggling, licking of lips and gormless stares occasionally cloys. One sometimes senses the performers trying to act young - too young, in fact, considering these kids are 16 by the time the talent competition begins. This a brilliant bunch of actors but they need to be careful not to pigeon-hole themselves.
But this is a minor quibble about an ensemble that has breathed fresh air and sparkle into Soho Theatre. This is a company that can make an extra character out of Forest Fruit squash, that can make a god out of Elvis and that throbs with colourful possibility. It is company that reminds us young people think big. Little Bulb also remind at that young companies - in spite of or perhaps because of their limitations – can create mightily impressive, grown up theatre.