Flight Memory

AAR The Street Theatre Flight Memory - photo by Shelly HiggsWho would have thought that a jazz song cycle inspired by the invention of the Black Box Flight Recorder would have made for an evening of absorbing theatre – not only absorbing, but thrilling?

Commissioned by The Street Theatre to shine a spotlight on the remarkable achievement of Australian scientist, David Warren, who invented the Black Box Flight Recorder, Flight Memory, is not biographical, although it does have a narrative. In her program notes, librettist, Alana Valentine is at pains to point out that the aim of the work was not to tell a biographical story, but rather to respond to it.

Three accomplished jazz singers, Michelle Nicolle, Leisa Keen and Liam Budge, form of modern Greek chorus, singing solo, duet and in trio, to embody the voice of David Warren. Sometimes they are the voices in his head, the naysaying voices in the world, narrators, pilots and journalists.  Sometimes all three sing in unison as a collective voice of David and the Aeronautical Research Laboratories team.

Alana Valentine’s libretto is intelligent, witty, and at times laugh-out-loud, but from its very opening moments when Leisa Keen’s air hostess instructs the audience in flight protocol, it engages the audience’s curiosity and emotions. Key influences in Warren’s life are noted.

His father’s gift of a crystal set radio receiver, his father’s death in one of Australia’s first aircraft disasters, how the loss of children in a plane crash off Mackay sparked the progress in air safety, of his response to the crushing indifference to his invention by aviation authorities until an English Air Vice Marshall recognises its potential.

Moments of drama and exposition are cleverly balanced with the cheeky, wry humour of The Family Jewels which comments on the dangers inherent in unfortunate placement of a recording device prototype in a Dutch built Fokker aircraft.

Although not all the lyrics were served well by the blurred articulation and jazz inflected vocalising, the three singers coped brilliantly, committing the entire score to memory, to often mesmerising effect. Leisa Keen’s impeccably delivered narrations were particularly impressive.

To accompany the singers, composer, Sandra France has assembled, and leads from the piano, a band of top-flight Canberra musicians, Brendan Clarke, Tom Fell, Gary France, Jess Green and Ben Marston. Her ten songs, which make up the cycle, embrace an intriguing mixture of musical styles.

Traces of baroque, classical, minimalism, blues, swing and even hip hop, tantalise the astute listener. Multiple key changes, time signatures add excitement. Luscious melodies soothe, only to be interrupted by dissonant chords.

A chill ran through the audience as France plucked frantically at the piano strings while the instruments wailed in cacophony at the revelation of children lost in a plane crash off Mackay. Her writing is assured and masterly, and despite its complexity, also melodic and approachable.

Directing with her usual panache, Caroline Stacey, took full advantage of Imogen Keen’s abstract shiny metal geometric setting, suggestive perhaps of the approach to an airfield, or  the inside of an aircraft cockpit, and the brilliantly atmospheric lighting of Niklas Pajanti, to create a continual stream of eye-pleasing stage pictures.

Given the importance of the lyrics to the enjoyment of this work, Kimmo Vennonen’s mostly excellent sound design would benefit from adjustment to favour the singers, particularly in those sections when the band is in full flight.

Flight Memory is a stunning achievement, highlighting an important scientific achievement in an unusual but highly effective stage presentation. On opening night, Kenneth Fraser, who worked beside David Warren on the development of the flight recorder, and Jenny Warren, David’s daughter, were in the audience. Hopefully audiences beyond Canberra will be given the opportunity to share this remarkable creation.

Flight Memory
The Street Theatre, 15 Childers Street, Canberra City West
Performance: Thursday 14 November 2019
Season: 14 – 17 November 2019 (closed)
Information: www.thestreet.org.au

Image: Flight Memory – photo by Peter Hislop

Review: Bill Stephens OAM