Edinburgh Fringe 2011
By any standards, it’s a classic tale of plucky British pioneers – Captain John Alcock, dashing WW1 fighter pilot, and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown, navigational genius with a gammy leg, huddled together against the elements in the tiny timber and canvas cockpit of their converted Vickers Vimy biplane – talk about winging it!
This is a very cleverly staged mockumentary about the real and much overlooked duo John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown, the pilot and navigator who made the first ever continuous crossing of the Atlantic in an airplane. The drama charts both men’s path to the record books, from WWI POW camps in Berlin and Constantinople via St. Johns, Newfoundland to a bog in the west of Ireland. Having applied a solid undercoat of aviation facts and trivia the writers, Brian Mitchell & Joseph Nixon, then laid on a well-paced narration of both the flight and the preparation leading up to it. Gloss was added by means of a comic tension between the narrators concerning the limit of artistic license in dramatizing this tale of daring do for the stage – a well-conceived device for demystifying the fourth wall.
My American companion, who I also took to Flanders and Swann, greatly enjoyed another insight into the English mindset but was all at sea to see a reason for the condescending tone of transatlantic rivalry – particularly given that this is a show about a constructing a bridge through the air between the old and new worlds.
Whereas an unheralded team of mechanics and engineers supported the real-life pre-flight, on stage the stars Ian Shaw (Alcock) and Richard Earl (Whitten Brown) were required to unpack their bi-plane themselves. This did slow the pace of the narration and one suspects that beyond the Fringe some stage hands might be well employed for the heavy lifting. Both men filled their parts well and did much which the material on offer. Both are hugely capable and when those stage hands do show up, the writers might oblige by giving them more to work with.
Even without two such engaging performances this production is worth seeing for its unFringingly groomed and elegant set which perfectly captures and animates the elegant bustle of the interwar years. The lighting, sound and staging all contribute to a hugely atmospheric piece that was however rather lost in the cavernous venue.
This is a production which combines the best elements of biopic and melodrama. It’s a largely successful big canvas attempt to illustrate an overlooked episode of genuine courage, technical knowhow and engineering wizardry. It reaches for the skies and with a few more rungs on the ladder has every chance of reaching full throttle.