Traditional Vaudeville originated in France at the end of the 19th century and is typically a dramatic composition or light poetry based on a comical situation and interspersed with song or ballets. Writer Alexander Knott has used this genre to create a clever, intricate and funny account of the Montgolfier brothers, pioneers of the hot air balloon. Born in the mid-18th century in Southern France, they used the profits of their father’s successful paper factories to support their aeronautical aspirations, as well their knowledge of materials to enhance their designs.
Light, elegant and with impeccable timing, the Vaudevillian performers Zöe Grain and Freya Sharp act, dance and romp their way through 75 minutes of a tale about the human desire to conquer the skies. They perform a number of roles, starting the narrative as the original self-propelling flight seekers: Icarus and his father, master craftsman Daedalus. Donningtheir homemade cloaks of feathers, they swoop elegantly into the air before Icarus’s refusal to listen to his father’s plaintive cries of “not too close, not too close!” precipitates his demise. Daedalus then pops up later in the narrative as a father motif, overseeing the human fervour for flight.
What is particularly impressive is how Knott has poetically woven into this narrative the most careful of details from the Montgolfier brothers’ journey of discovery. Grain and Sharp then slickly act out each discovery for the benefit of the audience. The power these two have cannot be over-estimated. They address the audience directly; they maintain eye contact; their relationship with us is pedagogical but supportive. The ease by which the comedic action is performed disguises the care with which the narrative has been put together. The script flows so naturally, so lyrically, it creates a physical performance of intangible influences.
James Demaine not only plays a troubadour and ragamuffin musician, he also wrote the original compositions. He’s funny and gifted and offers the right balance to Grain and Sharp. The music throughout is on point, accurate for the genre of Vaudeville. It mellifluously holds the different histories together, yet is supple enough to move flawlessly between moods.
The stage is full of carefully positioned props that harmoniously augment the action throughout, and you know each one will have been specifically chosen to be exactly the right item for that moment. And for me that summarises this piece: everything has been meticulously chosen, whether it is the script or the music, the props or the costumes, and it works beautifully. Possibly the lighting was a bit harsh, but that’s all.
The intimate design of the studio, and the nature of Vaudeville, create a powerful relationship between the performers and the audience. It is a story I didn’t know, so I learnt something, but more than that it is a story we all wanted to be part of.
Written & directed by: Alexander Knott
Produced by: BoxLess Theatre
Live Music Original Compositions & Sound Design by: James Demaine
Additional Music & Sound Design by: Samuel Heron
Costume supplied by: Concordia Theatre and Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts
Ballooniana! plays at New Wimbledon Studio until 1 October. Further information and bookings can be found here.