15 July 2007

Air Balloon Across Antarctica

Air Balloon Across Antarctica
Three to a Room

15 July 2007
Trades Hall, Old Council Chambers


Melbourne was only given a short fundraising season of Three To A Room’s Air Balloon Across Antarctica before it heads off to the Edinburgh Fringe. Let’s hope fair winds blow it safely back, so more people can see this astonishingly beautiful, highly original, funny and gut-wrenching production.

Caitlin is travelling in an air balloon across Antarctica. Her companion is Ham, an obese hamster, who longs to be a lemming (because lemmings are James Dean, while hamsters are Tom Hanks) and she is visited by great explorers of the past.

There’s so much about Darrah Martin’s script that shouldn’t work. His metaphors flow like water off a melting ice cap, he throws in adjectives like an over-sized and desperate for attention thesaurus and he tells instead of shows.

It is, nonetheless, one of the most beautifully written scripts I’ve encountered. Martin’s dialogue is dense, but he makes his words dance, without ever making them feel unnatural or forced. The incidental comments and dialogue may not always move the story forward, but they give the script a different level of life and make it shine. The band who were “all headbands and no irony” and Caitlin who “sprinkles discourse into a conversation like a condiment” make you want to listen to every word in case you miss a gem. Or perhaps it was all just a very elaborate ploy to find a use for the phrase “nudist balloonist”.

Language aside, Air Balloon tells a perfectly structured and surprising story. What could have been a totally acceptable and enjoyable love story is told in an original way from an unexpected point of view. What starts as a witty and enjoyable jaunt abut the “pinch-me-I’m-fainting ache and ecstasy of falling in love”, turns into a dangerous journey into “the sour dour knife twists and turns of sliding out of love” and the event that started the slide.

Part of me wants to see a professional company grab this script, polish up the rough edges and show it to a huge audience, but I don’t want to see it lose the simplicity and beauty of this production.

Yvonne Virsik’s direction deftly balances the humour with the sadness. By making the complex seem simple, she lets us see the intricacy of the complexity. With a script that can be excessive and plot that could be melodramatic, she paces the action perfectly, without letting the audience become too comfortable. The setting and characters are as absurd as rhinoceros in the street, but they are always emotionally real and we never doubt that Amelia Earhart or Ham the hamster don’t belong in this world.
The cast are, on the whole, not very experienced, but bring a level of understanding and maturity that far outweighs many a professional actor I’ve seen on our major stages recently.

Claire Glenn skilfully and gradually reveals the complexity of Caitlin’s truth and her search for something beginning with safe. Caitlin is filled with joy and anger and determination and frustration and sadness. She wants to appear open, but only so that no one can see the places in her that hurt. Glenn is thoroughly engaging as Caitlin, but never lets us become so captivated that we don’t see her flaws.

Paul David-Goddard as James was the surprise performance of the evening. James is the supporter of Caitlin, whose love and obsession let her be the explorer. James is controlled, safe and strong, as is David-Goddard’s performance. He isn’t the one expected to bring the audience to tears (myself included). His final moments gently nail the emotional impact of this work.

And then there’s Ham the hamster. He is part narrator and holder of the truth about the drip, drip burning bush. Ham is a ham and could have very easily been played for laughs, but Sophie Lampel brought a poignancy and believability to him. She deserves pat on the tummy and an extra big bowl of Special K for her performance.

Sayraphim Lothian’s continues to show how to make design support a script. Her balloon basket is woven from old brown clothes; the many, many layers that give us our appearance and status in the world.

Three To A Room received no funding for this project. Raffles, quiz/film nights and chocolates sales got Air Balloon off the ground. Producers a Claire Glenn, Charlotte Strantzen and Ellen Gales prove that determination and the desire to create exceptionally good theatre can create exceptionally good theatre.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

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