Reviewer's rating

This is a unique show from start to finish. When you arrive at the Bridge Theatre expectations are confounded. The staff guide you not into the main auditorium but through an underground labyrinth of functional corridors culminating in a darkened space where individual booths are arranged around a large drum-like structure. You take your portioned seat – all very Covid-appropriate – put on a headset, and the watch a line of light in front of you until a genuine adventure begins.

In the next forty-five minutes, you are charmed and moved not by actors on a stage, not by sets, costumes, or spectacular special effects, but by a journey, a narrative told entirely through models and tableaus set into the revolving drum in front of you and brought to life by the binaural soundtrack on your headphones. The lead performers here are as much the model-makers and sound designers as the three actors voicing the two main characters and narrating the story.

I admit I was sceptical in advance – as a reviewer I have learnt to withhold my emotional engagement unless it is artistically earned, and especially when as here, there is a self-evidently sympathetic cause – the plight of refugees – at its heart. But I was quickly won over here by the skill and invention of the modelling and cinematic qualities of the soundtrack. This is a remarkable example of taking what is essentially a Victorian artistic technique – a diorama – and reinventing it for our own times.

We follow the journey of two teenage brothers – Aryan and Kebir – both orphaned in Afghanistan, through their trek via ‘Kabul – Istanbul – Athens – Rome – Paris – London’ – which becomes the mantra that keeps them going through ordeals by road and sea, brutal manipulation and exploitation, and constant setbacks at the hands of border guards.

A short review can only gesture at the intricacy of the theatrical effects deployed here. The changing landscapes of Central Asia and Europe are depicted with exquisite attention to detail; the contrasted characters of the two boys are sketched in carefully in a dynamic gesture as much as vocal inflecions, and there is a deliberate use of expressionist fantasy to convey the essence of an emotion or a crisis in the moment – buildings bend in over the street to suggest the overwhelming impact of strange cities; nightmare and dream sequences are suggestively evoked by etched glass planes that let your own imagination fill in the gaps, and French border police appear as squawking gulls symbolising how incomprehensible and alien is to these young travellers. There is narrative drive and suggestive symbolism in equal measure.

In short, you lose yourself quickly in the story and forget the mechanisms and medium through which it is mediated. Poignancy, humour, and surprise are here in abundance despite or perhaps because this is not the traditional stage experience one expects. It is also important to note that while the story and characters are fictional, many of the incidents and traumas depicted on lorries and ferries and at borders mirror the actual experiences of contemporary refugees as told to the author of the original novel.

This production was originally devised by the experimental company ‘Vox Motus’ for the Edinburgh Festival in 2017. But its emotional and technical challenge is all more the telling for the times we find ourselves in now, and we can only hope that more people can witness it once circumstances again permit. Many of the original creative team head up this revival and they all deserve huge credit for their skill and emotional insight into how a ‘teenage road movie’ could be repackaged and represented in this format.

Sadly, the grim safety curtain of Tier 3 has now descended on theatre once more, even as I write this review; but in time this wonderful theatrical experience will re-emerge as a continuing testament to why we need theatre in our lives and how much we miss without its presence. With so much concentrated creative detail passing in front of your eyes ‘Flight’ will repay repeated viewing, and I look forward to being able to so in the New Year.