Edinburgh Fringe 2023
An intimate portrait of Juliane Koepke, who, as a 17-year-old, was the sole survivor of a plane crash. This musical focuses on her eleven days in the Peruvian jungle, offering a sensitive imagination of the young woman’s psyche and thoughts during this harrowing time using musical numbers to great effect.
As the audience enters, a blonde woman is sprawled on the floor, seemingly asleep, in a short 70s floral dress. We hear the sound of a small aircraft, followed by an explosion and whistling of parts through the air. Then there is silence until the sound of a rainforest reaches our ears.
Only now, when the woman wakes up, do we realize she has actually been unconscious. She is in visible pain. She takes stock. Her arm bleeds, her shoulder hurts, no, it is probably her collarbone, and she can’t see out of her right eye. Juliane, played masterly by Amy Clayton, speaks fast and disconnected. She had learned survival skills and tries to remember them. The rhythmic speaking leads seamlessly into ‘Gonna’, the first song, and we discover Clayton has a strong soulful mezzo that fills the room easily without amplification, a welcome rarity outside opera at the Fringe these days.
We learn a lot about the character whose name we actually never hear. All this information comes stumbling out when she is trying to sort her thoughts. It is incredibly good writing by Justin Cartledge, who wrote both the book and lyrics. He plays acoustic guitar in this production for which he also composed the music, arranged by Darren Matthews, who plays the keys. There is some interesting use of percussion by Richard Orchard-Rowe, who completes the band.
The audience is on tenterhooks all the time, and we feel with her. We never forget how badly injured Juliane actually is. The pain is constantly there, made visible in her limp, her inability to use her right arm. We hear her often cry out in pain. Clayton’s performance is sincere and makes the audience feel for the character. She is also strong and determined.
We learn Juliane is seventeen years old and was born in Peru, but she is of German descent. Her parents are scientists. Her mother was with her on the plane; she calls out for her, but she is nowhere to be heard, let alone seen. Juliane knows her only chance is the river. So she follows ‘The Sound of the River’, a beautiful guitar-led ballad, carefully making her way with one flip-flop and without spectacles.
When Juliane reaches the river, she has to make conscious choices about the dangers in the rivers versus those on land. She is very much caught between a rock and a hard place and chooses the river. She remembers a story of a shipwrecked man who was swimming away from a shark to safety on land. She is pensive when she recalls that this very significant moment in his life is insignificant for the existence of the world. With this melancholy thought, she wades into the river.
After four days of wading, she reaches a site of the wreckage. She finds a bag of sweets, the only food she has had so far. She wants to eat the whole bag but restrains herself with great effort, knowing she will need them going further. She shows the same restraint with her hydration. She drinks rainwater caught on leaves, knowing that the river water is full of bacteria that are dangerous to her, especially in her already weakened state.
Juliane searches the wreckage for more food, but there is none. However, she finds three bodies still strapped to their seats, their heads buried in the ground due to the impact. One of the victims is a woman, but she is certain this is not her mother. In ‘Setting Sun’, she wishes to see her family again to make it all as it was before. Lights out.
When the lights come back up, we have gone back in time a few days. It is Christmas Eve 1971, and we are at the airport waiting for LANSA flight 508 to board. In a flashback, Juliane explains that her father was unhappy that her mum booked with LANSA. The airline has a bad reputation, but all other flights are sold out. Originally, Juliane’s mum wanted to leave a few days earlier, but Juliane’s graduation ball was on 23rd December, and she really wanted to attend this event. The flight is delayed, but eventually, they board. It is a turbulent flight until the plane is hit by lightning. The scene is accompanied by menacing music played by all three musicians before Clayton’s deep-felt rock anthem ‘Falling’. It is an incredibly powerful number, moving from soft melancholy to belting outbursts and back.
We are back with Juliane at the wreckage site, and she carries on wading through the river for another five to six days until she sees a big bright iridescent blue butterfly, the blue morpho that gives the musical its name. She watches the slow flapping of the insect wings. This incredibly tender scene, accompanied by gentle piano music, truly heightening its significance in Juliane’s survival. This little animal gives her strength when helicopters fly over her but can’t see her because of the thick leaf cover. The very melodic piano-led ballad ‘The River Cries’ gives an introspective respite from Juliane’s struggle at this point. Her suffering is unbearable, and giving up would be so much easier. She is desperate for rescue and expresses this in a rocky, aggressively upbeat number ‘Sink or Swim’.
Juliane decides to let herself drift down the river. For everything else she is too weak. She is in luck; she reaches a boat that is tied to the bank next to a path. With her last strength, she drags herself up the path to a hut. A locked hut. There she collapses. Juliane is found the next day by fishermen, who bring her to safety and medical care.
After a few weeks of recovery, she helps search for the wreckage and bodies. In a tearful ‘Fragile’, a monologue with strong guitar accompaniment, we hear that 14 passengers also survived the crash but stayed put and so succumbed to their injuries. Among these was Juliane’s mother.
Blue Morpho works well because it focuses on a short period of time and mixes spoken text and songs. In the narration, the story is pushed along. We are always right there with Juliane in the moment, but through snippets of her thoughts, we also get the wider picture. The guilt that will be with her forever, because she wanted to attend her graduation ball and so she and her mother ended up on a plane that crashed. The mental and physical struggle is well played by Amy Clayton, whose sensitive portrayal of a seventeen-year-old girl is exciting to watch.
The musicians, especially the creators Justin Cartledge and Darren Matthews, are very invested in the music, and it comes across. There is an invisible bond between singer-actor Clayton and the band. The music feels very sincere and meaningful at all times. It is a true part of the show. Cartledge and Matthews have created a soundscape that is not only unusual in its use of acoustic guitar, synth, and simple percussion, including the calming sound of a rainmaker, but also uses different styles of rock music to enhance the lyrics. There were many times a song reminded me of the 70s record collection of my mother, who was born in the same year as Juliane. The typical Fringe length of an hour suits this topic very well. We never feel short-changed, but it also never gets boring.