The program notes describe Flight Memory as a “narrative song cycle”, but while experiencing this brilliant production, I thought it more a kind of “documusical”; it is much more than a song cycle.
As is the whole production, the story is out of left field. Who would have dreamed up the concept of a theatre piece based on the work of David Warren, the Australian scientist who invented the Black Box Flight Recorder, much less do it in jazz?
But, when you look at the stories behind Warren’s invention, the frustrations, belittlements, naysayers and the ultimate triumph certainly are compelling themes destined for the stage.
Commissioned by The Street Theatre and directed by its Artistic Director and CEO, Caroline Stacey, Flight Memory features a minimalist, but very effective set by Imogen Keen that not only extends into the audience but gives the stage the perception of endless depth. That, and truly creative and effective lighting by Niklas Pjanti, enhanced the drama and emotion in the work overall. On sound was Kimmo Vennonen, who expertly twiddled knobs to ensure flawless balance and highlights, including creating effects such as a very authentic-sounding exchange between the control tower, the flight deck and emergency services.
It was obvious that librettist, Alana Valentine, and composer, Sandra France, worked closely, for the results speak for themselves. The libretto and spoken narration (there was no dialogue) went hand-in-hand with the music so perfectly, one could not imagine one without the other. France, playing the piano and keyboard, was consummate in leading her band, Red Eggs, through a superb score that encompassed many jazz and blues styles all the way from New York-style jazz to minimalist jazz to Hip-Hop, with nods to classical and baroque influences along the way.
An interesting twist to this tale is that the cast of three – singers Liam Budge, Leisa Keen and Michelle Nicolle – didn’t have defined roles. They did not so much as “act”, but become the voices of the many who were involved in the often-harrowing story of Warren’s invention, even the ones in Warren’s head.
There were two really striking features of their performances. Their stage “choreography” was impeccable, including lugging their corded microphone stands around, confidently moving in an often very dimly lit environment, but always ending up in exactly the right spot for the extraordinary lighting. And, in song, their ability and exceptional versatility to cover every style (and voice) thrown at them by the composer and librettist kept a seamless continuity along the storyline.
Flight Memory is a truly brilliant work, which offers outstanding innovation. It is highly intellectual and thoroughly captivating. It surely must tour widely, especially given every plane in the air carries a Black Box Flight Recorder.
Flight Memory runs at The Street Theatre, Canberra until November 17