Flight Memory. Music by Sandra France. Text by Alana Valentine. Music director Sandra France. Directed by Caroline Stacey. The Street Theatre. Ended November 17.
Billed as "A Narrative Song Cycle about Australian Genius" and commissioned and developed by The Street Theatre, Flight Memory is neither quite opera nor play, but somewhere happily in between.
It helps if you know something of the story of David Warren and his invention of the black box flight recorder in the 1950s. And how that invention was not taken up in Australia but was seized upon by the British.
Alana Valentine's spare words outline key events. Young David is given a crystal set by his father. His father dies in a plane crash in Bass Strait and the plane is never found. He becomes a scientist and, despite opposition that is hard to believe in retrospect, comes up with the invention that has allowed a deeper understanding of the causes of plane crashes.
Three singers with impressive jazz credentials (Liam Budge, Leisa Keen and Michelle Nicolle) sketch in the story, moving their mic stands from place to place. Keen becomes the crisp voice of air travel, instructing the audience on safety during the flight of the show. Nicolle's rich voice is increasingly joined with Keen's as they probe Warren's story, while Budge, despite his very un-1950s long hair, captures the quiet passion of the man at the centre.
Imogen Keen's starkly striking set with its converging lines is both suggestive of a black box and a runway at night. Those lines also disquietingly vanish into nothing. The set is well supported by Niklas Pajanti's appropriately imaginative lighting.
The set is well supported by Niklas Pajanti's appropriately imaginative lighting
But the driving force of the piece is Sandra France's music, moody, grand and moving, with many influences but especially the freedom afforded by jazz. Despite the often serious content there's a lovely sense of the on-stage composer/conductor and musicians having fun.
You would not think the subject matter would give rise to humour but it's there. One objection to flight recorders was that they might pick up inappropriate language. The jaunty number The Family Jewels reflects the situation of male pilots having problems protecting themselves when they are flying Fokkers designed to be flown by taller Dutchmen. But it also reflects the success of the trial in that every word from the cockpit is successfully recorded, inappropriate or not.
Stones For Bread, on the other hand, is a hymn to Warren's determination to see the device succeed. Here Budge's Warren is beautifully focused on a desire to rise above opposition.
The piece has a majestic and magnificent finale, Voices of the Dead, where the reality is someone dusting off the ash from a black box and listening to those voices in order to find a clue to a crash. The recorder survives, the speakers do not. The word "Why?" lingers.
It would be good, perhaps, to see themes pulled together a little earlier in the script. Toward the end Red Tape Rag seems to be scrambling to explain and connect Warren's treatment and the cultural cringe. It's a valid thesis that might deserve more time.
But this is a new piece, unusual and striking, that should go on to have a life. Good on The Street for its commitment to developing new works.