August 4, 2008

Fasten Your Seatbelts


Theatre CHARLIE VICTOR ROMEO Udderbelly's Pasture ****

Anyone who has just flown in for the Edinburgh Fringe might be tempted to tear up their return ticket after checking in to Charlie Victor Romeo. Adapted from transcripts of black-box recordings of actual airline emergencies - its title is the military phonetic alphabet code for "cockpit voice recorder" - this will surely count as one of the scariest shows to hit this year's festival. Staged by the Collective:Unconscious theatre company from New York, it's more of a docudrama than a play, but none the less riveting for that.

It is simply staged, with the captain and his colleagues in a cockpit seen face-on over the nose of the aircraft. The cast of five - three men and two women - alternate in the six self-contained scenes as pilot, co-pilot, steward and passenger-pilot who leaves his seat to lend a hand. Watching their body language and facial expressions is enough to keep you on the edge of your seat, even though the ever more urgent utterances between ground and air, and the terse, technical exchanges between the pilots, often become scrambled into an indecipherable cacophony. After the black-out at the end of each scene, the screen that had introduced the flight number, aircraft type and number of passengers flashed up again, with the number of fatalities and the cause. You could hear a pin drop among the mesmerised audience.

The plane crashes pieced together here include the 1994 Indiana crash in which a jet plummeted 8,000ft in 35 seconds, the Sioux City crash landing and the 1985 mountain accident that killed 520 Japanese passengers. It seems as though the skies are buzzing with disasters waiting to happen. Remind me to walk round the next plane I board checking that maintenance hasn't carelessly taped over the exterior ports, blocking the transmission of flight data. And to check with the captain that we're going to be sure of getting an accurate altimeter setting. Then there's the question of sudden icing, or a gaggle of geese on the runway. And the passengers of the Qantas jet recently forced to make an unscheduled landing would no doubt add doors opening mid-gin and tonic to their checklist.

Does it feel prurient to be watching the re-enactment of actual flights in distress? Or intrusive to be witnessing the last seconds of people's lives? It's certainly chilling. The creators of this peculiarly compelling in-flight entertainment, Bob Berger and Irving Gregory, were aware of the dangers of presenting these scenarios as sensationalist death trips or, worse, as a pale imitation of Airplane!. Thanks to the excellent acting of the crew - sorry, cast - there's a remarkable element of realism and glimpses of heroism, as well as an insight into the psychology that makes something positive of the adrenalin rush in a crisis.

To 25 August, except 12 (0844 545 8252)

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