Lift Off (Je brasse de l’air) – Barbican Pit, London

Writer: Magali Rousseau

Director: Camille Trouve

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

The joy of unassisted flight is one of humanities long-cherished dreams, but one that has resulted in failure for all those who have tried. Icarus’ most famous attempt was always doomed, and whatever R Kelly believes he would be no more successful than his mythical counterpart. Yet we dream on. Which is exactly the starting point for Magali Rousseau’s abstract childhood tale with a touch of mechanical assistance.

A young girl is stuck at home with only vegetable chopping or watching Dallas to stave off her boredom, that’s until her mother encourages her to learn to fly. Climbing onto the table, she makes her first of many attempts that all result in failure, but she never gives up. Weaving a biographical story with her continual attempts to fly, Lift Off is the triumph of hope over experience.

Rousseau’s Decorative Arts background is used to combine a theatrical narrative with several small-scale machines, each used to illustrate a different aspect of the story. Ranging in size and scale from a bird-like machine flying around the audience’s head and a turntable that doubles as a chalkboard, to simpler designs made from pulleys and ropes that move one of her creations back and forth along a piece of string, the skill and intricacy of the pieces is impressive.

There are machines that work like clockwork toys with long delicate wing-shapes, wound-up to create a spinning motion, fascinating cog-based constructions that rotate a pair of disembodied thumbs as Magali decides what to do next, and even a moving robot that crawls to her across the floor. They all reiterate some of the show’s themes which centre around Physics concepts of force and motion, gravity and resistance, all of which explain why the protagonist’s flight plans remain permanently grounded.

Wonderful as these creations are, the story woven around it is less gripping so even with a brief 45-minute run-time towards the end it becomes a bit of box-ticking exercise as audience members calculate which machines in the room have yet to be used. The premise, while potentially expressive, is really a means to showcase the physical creations rather than to say something particular about the dreams of flight, aside from the rather trite insistence on clinging to your dreams come what may.

One of the key problems is the show’s level of intimacy and, while it wants each individual to engage with the mechanics as representations of Rousseau’s often hopeful and dreamlike inner state, the sheer number of people in the small dark room make this impossible. Promenade productions are all very well, but in limited spaces, it only results in plenty of jostling and restricted views as you attempt to crane between people’s shoulders and legs to see.

Lift Off is a high-concept show that takes a thoughtful approach to its design and atmosphere – largely provided by Stephane Diskus on clarinet – but needs to have a little more magic in its storytelling. It may use a scientific approach to convey its messages, however, it’s really trying to sell the fantasy of flying with clipped wings.

Runs until: 27 January 2018 | Image: Julien Jouber

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Needs more magic

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The Reviews Hub London is under the editorship of John Roberts.The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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