Too much drag, not enough lift


After the many pleasures of Parade at the Donmar Warehouse, I headed across town with my friend (via a tasty burger) to see the final performance of Take Flight at the Menier Chocolate Factory.  This was another venue I’d never visited (fab building), and again I had not seen anything by the composer-lyricist team of David Shire and Richard Maltby, Jr before.  This show is based on the stories of aviation pioneers the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, all pulled together by narration from the less successful Otto Lillienthal.

As you may guess from the title of this post, I wasn’t particularly thrilled as I watched this particular show.  There were moments when it almost took off, but it didn’t seem to be able to stay airborne.  It wasn’t bad, as such, and was nowhere near the low standards of an operatic version of the Roswell Incident I once saw, but it wasn’t really very good either.  I shall now try to steer clear of aviation puns, though I am not the only person writing about the show who has found that difficult.

The performances by the cast of thirteen were fine, though there were moments when it felt as though certain members of the ensemblewere over-playing bits for the benefit of their friends in the final night audience.  I particularly enjoyed Liza Pulman as Charles Lindbergh’s mother (among others), who was consistently engaging and, when appropriate, amusing.  Also, Sally Ann Triplett and Ian Bartholomew were quite riveting in their spoken scenes as Amelia Earhart and promoter (later husband) George Putnam.  This may clue the intelligent reader in to the major problem I had with the show, that the score was rather disappointing for the most part.  I love the writers’ score for Baby and enjoy many of their individual songs (‘If I Sing’ is beautiful), but this didn’t live up to expectations.  It seemed excessively repetitive, particularly the very pleasant but overused ascending series of chords from the ensemble whenever characters took flight.  And at some point near the beginning of the first act, there were some lyrics that literally made me wince.  Thankfully, I can’t recall them now.

The script by John Weidman was most effective in the dramatic scenes between Amelia and Putnam, but the score and production in general were at their best in the comedic moments.  Sam Kenyon and Elliot Levey as Wilbur and Orville Wright were very funny indeed.  They were nerdy, neurotic and had a physicality that made them feel as though they had stepped out of early Hollywood – a silent movie or one of the first talkies.  Their ongoing search for ‘equilibrium and stability’ is the funniest part of the show, and oddly, perhaps because of this, the most exciting when they finally achieve their goal.  Lindbergh, unfortunately, is much less interesting than the people in his hallucinations as he crosses the Atlantic.  Michael Jibson, who plays him, does the best he can, but his material never really seems to [insert your own flying metaphor here!].  By the interval, I was willing him to land.  Not because I was gripped by his story, but because I just couldn’t take it any longer.

At said interval, when we escaped upstairs from the basement theatre for some cool fresh air, we came very close to disappearing in order to catch an earlier train, but we persisted.  Luckily the second act was more enjoyable than the first.  I was particularly tickled by the Wright Brothers singing ‘The Funniest Thing’ to the accompaniment of an on-stage, erm, small stringed instrument (which I didn’t get a clear look at and thus can’t identify), which quite eclipsed Lindbergh’s amusing vaudeville-style bankers of the first act.  However, I didn’t know whether to laugh or hide under my seat in shame when a parade of national stereotypes was dragged out as Lindbergh’s competitors for the prize for first flight across the Atlantic were paraded before us.  In the end, I opted for slightly uncomfortable laughter.  And the second act did, of course, include the Wright Brothers’ success, which actually, finally moved me just in time for the curtain call.

The curtain call was enlivened by the presence of the show’s creative team.  Chiefly because I realised that most of them had been sitting just behind me, so I hoped they hadn’t overheard any of our interval negativity or sensed my ongoing restlessness.  As it was, we literally ran from the building as soon as the house lights were up, but that was in order to catch the train.  No, really, it was.

The show has potential, but it really did drag (it felt like the first act lasted several hours).  With further work, it could be very exciting, but it’s not something I would recommend if another production spreads its wings (oops) in the near future.  It wasn’t a complete waste of an evening, but it’s not something I would ever wish to repeat. 

Take Flight didn’t. To echo the title of one of the songs, my feelings were essentially ‘Pffft!’ 

  1. I hate it when shows are like that! Glad the other one was good though!

  2. Our semi-professional musical venue produced a revue of Maltby & Shire songs called “Closer Than Ever,” and we decided that they needed to have a drink named after them. 😉 (We asked them what kind of drink it would be, I can’t remember the reply…)

    By the way, I think they would have taken your audience reaction in stride and consider constructive critiques. So don’t run too far 😉

  3. Well, I really did have to run to London Bridge. At least it wasn’t Waterloo, the station of the endless tunnels in the sky.

    As I said, I like a lot of their songs. Just not these ones, for the most part!

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