28 August 2007

Take Flight - Menier Chocolate Factory - Saturday 25th August 2007

Demonstrations about extra runways, baggage handlers losing X million cases a year, having to check in 2 hours before take-off, interminable queues at security and Passport Control, overcrowded facilities - do you REALLY want to fly? Well, these people do - but then they are the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. Presented simply and sparingly, with a hard working cast of a dozen, the minimum of sets and props and a tiny (by West End standards) orchestra, this was a little gem of a show set in a time when flying was new, exciting and a cause for excitement rather than boredom.

The stories of four famous pioneers of flight (narrated by an obscure and failed - and already dead - fifth) may seem a bizarre subject for a brand-new musical - but then again, why not? There have been shows on stranger subjects. And this one presents its topic with a kind of wide-eyed wholesomeness that is very refreshing when so many productions these days seem to be struggling with cynical world-weariness. Trouble is, a lot of the reviews I've read of this seem unable to escape this world-weariness and miss the point, I think, of this show. They criticise the fact that this is not going to be another Chocolate Factory transfer to the West End, that the set is sparse and the props few. But who cares? Without complex sets to gaze on, you are forced to pay attention to the actors instead. As you are sitting uncompromisingly close to them anyway, this is surely no bad thing? These people are working hard to entertain you, and deserve your full attention The simplicity of the setting replicates the simplicity of the age - a time when life was slower, technology in its infancy, things more difficult to achieve and experiences all the more intense as a result. It shows that you don't need highly elaborate sets and tons of props in order to create an effective atmosphere. And - dare I say it - you come out having actually learned something along the way.

The problems faced by Wilbur and Orville Wright (Sam Kenyon and Eliot Levy – both hysterically deadpan) in actually getting their flying machine off the ground are woven in with the stories of the first solo flight across the Atlantic by Charles Lindbergh (Michael Jibson) and the career of Amelia Earhart (Sally Ann Triplett), narrated by Otto Lillienthal (no, me either; apparently he was a pioneer of gliding pre-Wright brothers). All the stories proceed at different paces and through different timescales, so unless you have a nodding acquaintance with what is going on and who is who, you can get a little bogged down in the over-long first half. Its therefore a good idea to have a good shufti at the programme notes beforehand. All three stories are presented in an uncompromisingly spare way – the set is a length of windswept, sandy beach, the backdrop a bare brick wall. A few chairs, a traveling trunk, a couple of suitcases, a stepladder and a couple of model aircraft– and that’s all, folks. This spareness forces you to use your imagination in a way that more complex sets fail to do – by the end, you can feel the cockpits, rather than being shown them. Having said that, there are a few stunning (and stunningly simple) visual effects – the best probably being the representation of Earhart’s fateful round-the-world flight. Remember the red line which describes the path of the airplane in films like “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”? Well, that’s what is being given to you here – except its not a computer-enhanced image, just a spool of red ribbon being unwound and held at differing heights by a line of actors ranged across the stage, silhouetted against the brightly lit sky. Very simple and incredibly effective. A network of tiny lights embedded in the sand dunes becomes the lights of night-time Paris, above which Lindbergh hovers, perched on a stepladder. You don’t need any more than this – these are flights of imagination, literally and figuratively.

Sure, there are moments when schmaltz manages to get in the way – most notably in the second half of the show, and mainly in Earhart’s sections of the story. Finding that her flying causes marital strife, Earhart promises to take “just one more flight – my last ever” – and you just KNOW that something is going to go wrong. One is left with the faint feeling that she commits suicide on the home stretch of her journey around the world, not wishing to return to her earthbound and uncompromising publisher husband. Maybe? Maybe not. Then the dead Earhart appears to Lindbergh as he approaches Paris on his momentous flight (odd, because she disappeared some years after this event) exhorting him to “Keep on flyin” – cue for sentimentality in bucketloads, syrupy lyrics and gooey lighting effects. But these moments are mercifully few and far between in a barnstorming, flying circus of a show that catches hold of your imagination, takes wing and flies into the wild blue beyond.

What the critics thought:



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