Edinburgh International Festival 2022
In 2018 Richard Russell did an awesome thing. On the 10th of August he stole an aircraft. He then flew it, with no more training than would be available on a game console and spent several hours in the air. It is our launch pad for the show. Richard, however, had a destination which, we are warned, does not end well. Sam, our guide, tells us the start of the story and then offers a variety of options for us as an audience. We could sit in silence until it is time to leave, or we can engage and take on the role of directing the theatrical traffic. Whilst this traffic is closer to the ground than Russell’s it is nonetheless dramatic as we imagine life for us in 50, 100, 300 years beyond the end of the show. It involves a number of pieces of audience participation which, without anyone taking the leap of faith to engage, would return us to our silence.
This is a fantastic theatrical experience. From the premise to the conclusion, we go on a flight of fantasy that may start with a young man in an aeroplane but ends with us fully satisfied that we have been involved in what is quite a treat.
The structure has Sam, our host for the hour or so – the advertised time – begin the story from sitting amongst us, in the audience. The story he begins is of Richard Russell who took his stolen plane on a journey, constantly in touch with air traffic control – those discussions with air traffic control are played out between sections.
It serves as a metaphor because the show requires a pilot – Sam – and an uncertain flight path – our choices. Sam asks us to take decisions about whether we wish to continue or not. He asks people to make commitments on all our behalf, and the truth is we are all constantly, willing passengers.
That is partly because the key skill that Sam possesses is an easy storytelling manner which has a hint of pace and danger. He knows when to heighten the drama and when to pause and allow us to catch up. The 50 years from the end of this show had one audience member delivering a baby in Sicily. 100 years hence it was someone watching a person burning in a building across from their delivery of a speech, sometime later there were two strangers meeting again and by the end it was a man who contributed to asking to hear the end.
And the end was that Richard Russell didn’t land the plane and survive. Our landing was better, though who knows what the future holds – Sam did give us plenty of suggestions.
The pace was so good that at no time did those suggestions of us being around,50, 100 or even 300 years hence seemed strange. We accepted this and suspended our disbelief because Sam had us right where he wanted us all to be. Only once did I sense nervousness – when our first participant, who would deliver a baby in 50 years, was asked if this phased her – she was an A and E nurse, so not really! The laughter which descended was proof of how much we were engaged, but Sam had a plot to deliver and needed us back on it. He brought us back on board and we replaced our seat belts.
In the round it was perfectly measured and with most of the soundscape contributing the sense of it being an occasion it worked really well. The only time that I did struggle as near the end when the background noise became a little more competitive than it needed to be to the narrative. The script was nuanced enough to set up strands and draw them neatly together towards the end of the show which included wonderful moments as the banal became important – including accountancy and ascending to God, though not at the same times, amongst others.
The most impressive was its theatricality. The final story of how Russell Barrel Rolled and then crash landed had a sadness – we were not promised a happy ending – but it had at its core a joy – theatre was certainly back. The format was the star of the show and whilst Sam was a tremendous host, the direction was faultless and the concept inspired. Theatre, at its heartfelt best.