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Those Magnificent Men
Published on Thursday, 11 August 2011

4 stars

Udderbelly's Pasture (venue website)
3-16, 18-29 Aug, 1:15pm-2:30pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Parental Guidance. Parents or guardians should consider the content of this show if children are attending.

History hasn’t been kind to John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown.  They were the first to fly non-stop over the Atlantic, back when people genuinely wondered whether it would ever be possible; but their star’s been eclipsed by their more dashing, more newsworthy, more American contemporary, Charles Lindbergh.  In this two-man play, Alcock and Brown re-enact their pioneering crossing, debate their place in the history books, and incongruously prepare to pitch for a blockbuster film – all the time wondering just how far they can go in embellishing their already-striking tale.

The witty script is filled with sneaky one-liners, and there’s a delightful contrast between Alcock – ramrod-straight, debonair, always staring at the horizon – and the messy, tank-top-sporting Brown.  The flight itself isn’t all that happens, but it’s unquestionably the highlight; after building their Heath Robinson aeroplane (triggering a spontaneous round of applause), they replay the hair-raising crossing with a perfect mix of humour and drama.  The more wilfully daft moments – Brown hops out because he’s forgotten his sandwiches – serve only to highlight the genuine terrors they faced, amidst the Atlantic fog.

But what of the time when they’re not in the air?  This is essentially a three-act play – preparation, flight and aftermath – and while that classic structure doubtless served it well touring regional theatres, it sits less comfortably with the bish-bash-bosh expectations of the Fringe.  The flight itself is so striking that the extended wrap-up felt a little disappointing, despite one moment of terrible poignancy which is perfectly judged and played.  And the meta-theatrical elements (the actors realising they’re actors) were laid on a little heavily for my taste – as though they didn’t quite trust me to get the point unless it were carefully explained.

It’s an understandable fear, I suppose, since there’s a lot to get your arms around here; professionalism and friendship, competition and goodwill, celebrity and reality – and cleverly layered on top of it all, the liberties writers sometimes take when they appropriate another person’s life story and good name.  You can ponder all these meanings, or you can just enjoy the knockabout humour; either way, you’ll find yourself flying high.  And you’ll learn something, too, even if it’s just a newfound respect for the unthinkable risks taken by these early pioneers.

In a show filled with details, here’s one last one.  As you take your seat in the Underbelly’s elegant (if woefully misnamed) Cow Barn, an usher hands you a “luxury souvenir programme” – and no, sir or madam, of course there’s no charge.  It’s a quaint moment of civility among the hurly-burly of the Fringe – and it’s somehow emblematic of this funny and thoughtful play, which explores the nature of endeavour and celebrity in a different, more gentlemanly, age.

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