Writer And Director: Alexander Knott
Two vaudevillians welcome us to a show that hasn’t begun yet. They are here to talk about flight in a kaleidoscope. Ballooniana! is uneven and a tad unfocused but is thrilling performed and very funny.
Our central story concerns the Montgolfier brothers, who developed the hot air balloon in 1783, by the way of Icarus and Daedalus and some bloke named Neil Armstrong. Some of the connections between the stories work better than others: Armstrong’s in particular needs a stronger link to the main strand, seeming to fizzle out before it gets going. Callbacks to Icarus and Daedalus are more successful, allowing Freya Sharp and Zöe Grain to demonstrate some lovely physical theatre. The two performers are exceptional in all roles, convincingly comedic in a way that sometimes echoes Samuel Beckett, and wring real tenderness from the Montgolfier’s personal and professional struggles. When James Demaine is finally able to join in the fun, he too has excellent comic timing.
This comedy runs rampant across the whole piece, inflecting the physical sequences as well, which are performed with much flair and precision. There are, however, a lot of them, and it is here as in the surplus of dialogue where Ballooniana! feels overstuffed. Although the manic joy and childish playfulness of the text are central to the show’s success, they are also overwhelming, with the quickfire repartee clouding the themes of the text rather than emphasising them. Some sequences go by in a flash, whereas others linger too long. That the audience keeps a grip on what’s going on and consistently enjoys it is at times due to the performers command of the script. Nevertheless, the dialogue is sharp and the metaphors apt: there are just a lot of them!
Ballooniana! is a thrilling paean to the human need for flight, hope, and the freedom of storytelling. Although sometimes it needs to be tethered closer to the ground, an excellent cast and sense of ebullient joy make it a real winner. It’s a show that soars.
Runs until 1 October 2022