The main topic of conversation during the interval was, “Can a turkey fly?”
Even the combined wisdom of the West End Whingers, would-be whinger Mark and special guest drinker/blogger City Slicker couldn’t produce an authoritative answer on the spot.
The truth – according to the Internet at any rate – is more equivocal than one might think:
Wild turkeys can fly, apparently, but not very far: just up into the nearest tree.
However, farm turkeys generally can not fly at all because they have been bred to develop a large and meaty breast which makes them front-heavy and hence even less aerodynamic than their cousins (plus they are probably kept in tiny cages).
As a topic for a musical the aerodynamics of turkeys probably has less dramatic potential than the story of the greatest (American) pioneers of flight – Orville and Wilbur Wright, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. But after the first act of Take Flight at the Menier Chocolate Factory it was all looking pretty counter-intuitive.
The subject matter must sound like a gift to anyone thinking of writing a musical. After all, here is a subject so rich with poetry, metaphor, imagery, allegory, iconography and every other kind of semiotic device known to lyricist that it can only soar effortlessly to unimagined heights. Or bump along the runway for a couple of hours before juddering to an ignominious halt.
Because that’s the tricky thing about metaphors: they’re a double-edged coin (© People Like Us) and those who live by the metaphor are pretty much asking to be savaged by it (Isherwood: I Am A Camera. Parker or Kerr: Me No Leica).
So it was just as well that Whingers had a very long list of damning airline-related gags lying around which they had been unable to cram into the Boeing, Boeing review due to that production having been inconveniently excellent.
Poor Take Flight. It didn’t stand a chance really. Let’s get a few out of the way now: Never really took off, felt like a long haul, more fun had by anxious relatives in the arrivals lounge at Sao Paulo.
The Whingers have moaned long and oft about the Menier’s unallocated seating policy but it suddenly seemed wholly appropriate, the pre-show scrum for a decent seat putting Phil in mind of the last time he flew Ryanair. And so it was the party found themselves on the wing of the auditorium without a decent view. In the event of an emergency they were unlikely to hear any announcements as the sound was muffled, to say the least.
But what they could see was a beach of real sand on carpet. Phil for once felt sorry for the performers who will presumably be spending the next six weeks brushing sand off their bodies and out of their beds. Andrew’s first thought was how practical a medium this would be for dancing on (there would be dancing, surely; it’s a musical). It certainly looked as though tap would be off the menu. Perhaps there would be a revival of Wilson, Kepple and Betty sand dancing; long overdue in the Whingers’ humble opinion.
Sand apart, the stage was looking worryingly bare (there would be a set, surely; it’s a musical) with no sight of an aeroplane (there would be an aeroplane, surely; it’s a musical). No, just a pile of suitcases, a step-ladder and a trunk from which -wait! – props were produced! The Whingers can count on just 27 hands the number of times they have seen this innovative device employed.
Still, it was an education. Reading between the lines of this musical (which is far more enjoyable than listening to the actual lines) :
- the Wright brothers (right) were borderline autistic;
- Lindbergh was a disturbed misanthropist flying to escape his domineering mother;
- Earhart was a sapphist.
Actually, we already knew that last fact courtesy of The Drowsy Chaperone (“…an aviatrix; today we’d call her a lesbian”) but this was more explicit. “There’s a part of me I can’t give you,” the reluctant Earhart tells her fiancé. “Too much information,” whispered Andrew as he groped the seat-back looking in vain for a sick bag.
Anyway, what these damaged people apparently have in common is that they are never happier then when they are alone in the air – or pretending to be in the air by sitting on top of a step ladder or a pile of packing crates – singing their hearts out. But don’t worry, you know when the step ladder has taken off because the lighting changes (which is actually quite effective but unfortunately we are unable to credit the lighting designer due to the fact that none in our party got around to buying a programme).
And the songs? Never in the field of inhuman whinging have so many notes been scribbled so frantically with such gusto.
Here are just a few of our favourite couplets:
“Look, there’s the grail/You didn’t fail”
“Weight is limiting/Range is everything”
“Strange how wrong they are/Range means going far.”
“I’m not insane/It’s your dull brain”
“It’s my sky and I fly alone”
And here are our favourite uses of imagery, metaphor and so on:
“Each day I reach for the stars”
“We’ll go halfway to heaven and then we’ll never be earthbound again”
“Up here in the sky I discovered a way of seeing”
“This is the dusk before the dawn”
“A man feels small before the dawn”
Indeed there was much play on the concept of “soaring” but unfortunately every time a song started the Whingers’ hearts actually sank.
Other lowlights included:
“How can we be wrong we’re the Wright bothers?”
Rhyming “Papua” with “You-a” and “Well do so” with “Crusoe”
Much has been made in other reviews of the fact that it seems to want to be like a Sondheim musical, and indeed, a few chords did remind Phil of Sweeney Todd but by the time the big number “Lost” was in full swing, the Whingers thought they had wandered into The Musical of Musicals the Musical, a feeling undiminished by the comedy number which is mostly about people being killed.
Dramatically it doesn’t work either. Trying to shoehorn three stories together means there’s no time to explore the emotional context of any of the action, or indeed the action itself: When Earhart makes history as the first woman to cross the Atlantic battling leaking fuel and sparks coming out of the engine the entire trip took about seven seconds – so it was difficult to get a sense of what all the fuss was about.
It was mostly sad for the cast, though, who were generally very good. Sally Ann Triplett (left, as Earhart) is a game gal and tries to make the most of things. She gets what constitutes a big Hello, Dolly type number, “Lady Lindy”, but unfortunately – with only a stepladder substituting for the staircase – a big walk down is off the agenda. Without Carol Channing to hold it together and only a sand pit to perform on, the Whingers entertained themselves by imagining Ms Channing kicking off her heels and struggling down the ladder in flip-flops.
Michael Jibson (right, as Lindberg) was so good in Our House but here he was the most inaudible (and that’s saying something) and most of his lyrics were lost. Which would have been a blessing if they hadn’t been so enjoyably bad.
After two and a half hours of imagery upon metaphor upon simile with no dramtic substance to hold it together the Whingers were longing for a Gable & Stein musical. The Gay Geisha or The Enchanted Nightingale anyone?
- “Dead people never invent anything”. What does that mean?
- Phil is sad to report that there was no food consumed on stage which these days pretty much all audiences expect to see. Was it too sandy?
- Having dealt with the Wright brothers, we fully expect the next Maltby & Shire offering to be Gilbert and George – The Musical!
- The Whingers were immensely proud of City Slicker falling asleep in her seat between the Whingers. Phil’s not sure if this was the effect of the show or just her close proximity to Andrew which has cured Phil’s insomnia on many occasions. She woke up just long enough to write a response to Andrew’s enquiry via notebook (right).
- The man in front of us was texting.
- There was a marvellous Drowsy Chaperone moment when the same man dropped his cane. We are now certain that the line must have been “Leave while you can”.
“Maltby & Shire” sounds like a very convincing musical theatre partnership as in “Oh, yes, it’s the new Maltby & Shire musical” but when pressed, the Whingers were a bit hazy on the facts. So for the record, this is who they are:
“Richard Maltby and David Shire wrote Closer than Ever, Starting Here, Starting Now and Baby.” No, we’re none the wiser.
“Individually David Shire is an Oscar-winning film score composer (All The Presidents Men, Norma Rae and most recently Zodiac).” Umm. Can you hum it?
“Richard Maltby wrote the lyrics for Miss Saigon and he devised and directed Ain’t Misbehavin (Tony – Best Director) and Fosse.” Ahh, OK. Heard of those.
“The book is by John Weidman who is a long time Sondheim collaborator and wrote the book for Assassins, Pacific Overtures and Bounce.” Impressive, but in the Sondheim pantheon…