Take Flight @ Menier Chocolate Factory, London

cast list
Sally Ann Triplett
Michael Jibson
Sam Kenyon
Elliot Levey
Clive Carter
Ian Bartholomew

directed by
Sam Buntrock
These days, it seems, the aeroplane is the enemy. Indeed, it’s impossible to open a Sunday supplement without being reminded that our fondness for flying is a Bad Thing, that we have made the planet a smaller place at the expense of making it a hotter (and wetter) one too. And yet, in the early years of the last century, flying was a source of fascination and wonder; the idea of a man taking to the air still permeated with a sense of magic.

It is this feeling that this new musical by composer David Shire and lyricist Richard Maltby Jr attempts to tap into. Take Flight interweaves the stories of the early pioneers of flight: the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. It attempts to examine what drew these individuals to risk their lives in pursuit of a dream, to attempt what others had deemed impossible.

In the case of the Wright brothers and Lindberg, their passion for flight, appears to be accompanied by a glaring lack of more basic social skills. Lindbergh is depicted as so cripplingly shy that flying solo, sans co-pilot, is the only thing that makes him truly happy and the Wright Brothers seem to exist in their own little world, energized by equations and the ‘equilibrium’ needed to get a manned plane into the air, but having little in their lives beyond that. Earhart is better rounded, as a person; an independent spirit, she needs to constantly challenge herself in order to feel alive. She reluctantly marries her publisher, George Putnam, but it is clear from the start that he will always take second place to the planes, that a ground-bound life will never satisfy her.

For a musical, this is, unusually, more successful at touching the mind than the heart. With a couple of exceptions the songs are rather samey, though the lyrics have moments of wit and inspiration. Sally Anne Triplett’s Earhart is supposed to provide the emotional core of the piece but I was more taken with Michael Jibson’s pallid, introverted Lindberg, unfortunately his character is given little room to do much apart from look nervous and uncomfortable (and the musical does seem to suggest that his famed flight to Paris came about, at least in part, as a result of desire to avoid making small talk, which seems a trifle harsh).

The Wright Brothers, predominantly used as a source of comic relief, are invested with an endearing geeky quality by Sam Kenyon and Elliot Levey that elevates their numbers together into some of the most memorable in the show.

The staging of Sam Buntrock’s production is simple but inventive. A sloping carpet of sand and a bare brick back wall. The flying scenes are achieved by the actors clambering on top of stepladders or packing cases. The band is perched on either side of the stage and there’s something very pleasing about this uncluttered, rather minimal approach.

Though it flubs a few key moments (when Earhart, plane lost on her final flight, urges Lindbergh to never land, it feels contrived rather than moving) but there is something genuinely uplifting about Take Flight if you’ll excuse the pun. It has a celebratory air; it’s awake to all that people can achieve if they push themselves, if they have vision and passion; it’s about progress and hope, rather than the fear and apprehension about the future that seems so globally pervasive at the moment.

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