Brighton Fringe 2019
Directed designed and lit by Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon for The Foundry Group, The Ornate Johnsons. Returns May 23rd.
Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon have won many awards for Those Magnificent Men since its inception in 2010. They show no signs of flagging, which is just as well as they’d end up drowned in the Atlantic of 1919. Upside down too. In this production the cast remains the same as from 2015: Mitchell as Alcock and David Mounfield’s Brown.
So it’s a centenary year, and this tour commemorates the very real achievements of Jack Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown the eponymous Magnificent Men who made the first sustained solo flight across the Atlantic, though U.S. seaplanes had made stopped flights. Cheats! Still, we remember Alcock and Brown more, but not as much as…. Charles Lindbergh. As we find out, a sore point.
As for style… Think National Theatre of Brent taking to the air, but paying homage to real pioneers with a mixture of comedy and awkward reverence. Directed designed and lit by Mitchell and Nixon too the Rialto’s space is taken up with the gradual assemblage – with amateurish-looking screens finally revealing this – an ingenious ingénue replication of the Vimy itself, with fabric wings on picnic tables, little propellers with British flags, a canvas frontage and side-by-side seating as space meant the old tandem configuration of the Vimy had to be scrapped for extra fuel tanks. And bottles of beer.
They had enough petrol, as they later ruefully admit, to get to Trafalgar Square. You can check all this because the actual plane is in the Science Museum and a replica was flown in 1968, though in 1969 damaged by fire and grounded after restoration. That’s over at the Shuttleworth Collection.
So no excuses for not being able to work out what the kite looked like! On the other hand the spoiler’s out: they made it!
Mitchell’s straight-talking gung-ho Alcock is also a stickler for fact, whereas the Dryden-reading Brown, who writes eloquently and indeed wrote a superb account of the flight, is more fanciful. Here’s where the actors conflate fourth-wall contemporary reportage a la Brent whilst being in character. So now Alcock and Brown are with us today puzzling why they’re not so famous and what happened to make Lindbergh get that 1957 film made with James Stewart (who actually flew U.S. bombers). Indeed they speculate on all sorts of contemporary mores, then suddenly remember Alcock and Brown know nothing of Twitter.
Mounfield‘s Brown continually tries beefing up their story, from their own meeting (we get two versions) via skulduggery on the Canadian field in St John’s Newfoundland (sorry, erstwhile competitors were helpfulness itself, even the Yanks) through to where they actually landed. That’s not all, when they’re applauded landing there an infant in the crowd Neil Armstrong gets inspired to…. ‘No, in any case he was born in 1930’ Alcock reminds Brown.
Mounfield’s Brown – a kind of Morecombe – is continually thwarted in his attempts to poeticize what Mitchell’s Wise-like Alcock reckons is pretty racy. Like being fifty feet from the sea upside down and spiralling from a spin; or iced-up carburettors, which Brown heroically chips away at six times; both engines. His avatar does it once on one engine and reckons that’s quite enough verismo thank you.
On the other hand Mounfield’s Brown doesn’t stint on throwing cold water, hail stones or even fluffing up snow all over Mitchell’s pilot to replicate how uncomfortable it all was. You can almost see Morecombe doing that, the unbreakable straight and funny man duo.
And the miracle is, that of course they don’t guy their heroes, but instead enhance the making-light that the pilot and navigator themselves would have recognized.
The end, a discourse on fame, history, its longeurs and absurdities, also brings pathos and moments of choking personal tragedy. You find out what happens to these Magnificent Men; for they were, and are.